Art by Jasminago
The report from Moscow was sobering. The Cabal attack had been turned, but only just barely. Helen paused the video recording of the damage. A splash of blood, red against the pale floor, indicated where someone had died. There was too much blood there for it to have been anything else. She minimized the video and rose, going to her window.
She looked over at Will. The young man stood by, ready and waiting for her orders. It was sad how much of a soldier he'd become. It hadn't fit him in the beginning, but now he was growing into it. Helen hadn't wanted that for him, or anyone. Choice in the matter, though, had been taken from her. Like so many other things.
"Coordinate with Ravi. We'll take what he cannot, and make room for the rest. London cannot yet offer assistance. Their hands are still full from Berlin."
Will nodded, expression grim.
"Henry? Would you arrange for secure data transfer with the Moscow techs? If we need to abandon the site, I'd rather that our people don't lose any of their research." Or that any of it falls into the hands of those monsters.
"Sure thing, Doc," Henry said. His green eyes were more dull than they'd been. The months of tension and combat were wearing on him as well.
She gave him a small, encouraging smile. "Thank you. I'd like you three," she indicated Kate, Henry and Will, "to also help with the pickup. We should see the first shipments in a few hours. Get some sleep." She nodded dismissal and the group left.
Helen crossed her arms and watched the world outside move onward. "What do you think?" she asked.
The shadow detached itself from the wall and stepped into the light. She was fairly sure that only Ms. Freelander had noticed John lurking in the dark corner of her office. His long coat ghosted over the ground and flared as he walked to her brandy.
"They have Mr. Wood, but without Ashley and the others they've lost their momentum. At least for an all out assault. Nikola mentioned that Mexico City has had some problems with the local government." He poured a single glass after she silently declined with a small negative wave of her hand.
Helen nodded. "And Rio's suppliers just increased their prices," she added. "It's become a war of attrition." She hated that she had to ask the next question, hated that she wanted to hear a favorable answer. "What have you found?"
John focused on pouring, careful not to spill or splash. He'd poured their drinks and experiments with the same precision. John's tone was very even when he replied. Perhaps there was a small note of weariness, but it was equally likely that she was imagining or projecting it. "We've found another lab. A small one. Nikola believes it might be possible to access their network from within, so we withdrew before we were seen. Mr. Foss is suggesting ways to attack them through their own computers with a virus. I left before the debate could get more heated. Or more technical." He took what was becoming his usual seat.
Helen found the corner of her lips quirking in a small smile for a brief moment.
"There are wolves at your door, Helen."
She closed her eyes, nodding once. The Cabal still had one super-abnormal at their beck and call. They were using him sparingly now. The initial blitz had died with Ashley and the others, but rather than retreat entirely, the Cabal seemed content to nip at them, ripping little bits and pieces until it finally fell apart. Tensions were rising among the Heads of House, cracks beginning to form in their united front.
Helen sighed. She'd wondered how long it would take for them to try alternate avenues. They were somewhat insulated against attacks such as these, but they had people to feed and bills to pay. Eventually that insulation would wear away. Efforts to discern the Cabal's network and attack in kind were thus far fruitless.
"I've wondered how long they've studied us," Helen mused. It was terrifying that they'd been so effectively targeted. She heard John rise from the chair, leather creaking softly. She knew she'd heard him only because he'd allowed her to, not taking his usual care to be silent. He joined her by the window, the embodiment of dark, living rage and eloquent danger. Helen suppressed a shiver.
Outside the world had become darker, greyer. Heavy mist rolled over the mountains like a living thing, tendrils snaking down, over and through the trees. Clouds hung low to the north; soon they would sweep down over the city bringing the chilly winds that would snatch the last of the leaves off the trees.
"Storm's coming," he said, breaking the silence.
"It's already here," Helen replied. "What's left is to face it."
"You have someplace to be?" Henry asked, a little more sharply than he'd intended. This was the fifth time Kate had checked her watch on the way home and it was beginning to annoy him.
Kate tugged down her jacket sleeve, smirking. "Hot date."
The thief hadn't turned on them like Henry had half-expected her to do. She hadn't skipped town either. Then again, Henry understood the need to get some payback. He'd done some digging on her background and while she wasn't the cleanest character, she wasn't a known turncoat. Still, she'd stepped into Ashley's place. Too neatly for him to be comfy with.
He still expected to see Ash at his back, but no, Kate was there instead. She was a good gun and while she didn't
Henry rolled his eyes. "We'll be home in ten minutes."
"You da man," she grinned at him then popped a piece of gum into her mouth. She offered the pack.
Henry declined with a small shake of his head. It was unlikely that there was an actual date waiting for her; they were all on lockdown as the Cabal circled. The initial phases of this quiet little war over, they'd begun the slower, more subtle tactics. It made Henry feel caged. The feeling got under his skin and added to everything else.
One of the crates in the back of the van let out a loud ululating sound and Henry winced.
"Hey!" Kate twisted around in her seat so she could reach through the bars of the cage and pet the critter. He voice softened. "You can be with your girlfriend later."
The sound subsided into disgruntled chittering and Henry shook his head. Kate was by turns both annoying and useful. She'd been that way since she'd shown up and hadn't changed a bit. She kept too many secrets though and Henry was done with clandestine bullshit.
Kate twisted around in her seat again. "Think Will's having the same problem with the missus?" she asked as she checked her reflection.
Henry shrugged and eyed the crate through the rear-view mirror. "Hope not. Didn't like separating them but there wasn't enough room for both of them in the van and the trucks were full."
The abnormal in the back cried out again and Henry winced. Moscow had been home to a pair of gryphons that had been rescued from some Russian businessman with more money than sense. They were a mated pair and usually pretty placid, but they hated to be separated and the travel had them uneasy. The gryphon sighed, a sad, fluting sound. Henry sighed too. "Sorry, buddy. We'll be home in five."
"You okay over there?"
Henry gripped the wheel for a second then slouched in his seat. "Yeah. Life's rough right now, ya know? S'nothing."
Henry was uncomfortably aware of Kate watching him. He kept his eyes on the road, focusing on the drive. He took his exit and soon they were on city streets, the high towers of the Sanctuary lit in the falling night. Henry's eyes flicked up as they approached home. Ashley's room, as always, was dark.
They pulled into the loading dock and began to unpack the newest refugees with the help of Biggie and Chuck Janus, the two-faced man. Will pulled up a few minutes later and they began hauling those crates out as well. Breathing a sigh of relief that they hadn't been attacked on the way home, Henry reached over and unlocked the gryphon's cage.
The abnormal critter had a twisted wing, but he hopped out like a cat and made a beeline for his mate's crate, scratching lightly at the plastic with stubby claws. Henry unlocked her and she limped out, wings also neatly clipped, one hindpaw twisted from a botched attempt to declaw her. They made happy sounds as they butted heads and rubbed against one another, like a pair of big cats, making a churring noise all the while.
Kate crouched down and scratched both abnormals behind the tufted ears. "Told you you'd get to see the missus," she said to the male who leaned into her fingers, head tilted to one side so she could get the right spot.
Will smirked. "Well, that's two happy." He smelled relieved and tired. He slapped Henry's shoulder.
Henry stuffed his hands into his pockets. "Yeah. We should see about getting them some chow."
"I'll see to them," Bigfoot said, coaxing the pair to follow him.
Will twisted, cracking his back. He rubbed the back of his neck. "Well," he sighed dramatically, "I have paperwork Magnus wanted five minutes ago. I'll finish that then come back and help unload whatever is left. Unless that is, one of you would like to do it?" He looked hopeful.
Kate made a scoffing sound about the same time Henry did. He scowled at her but shook his head at Will.
"All yours, man." Henry said, pulling out his tablet from the back of the truck and bringing up the manifest. They were running low on room again, even having opened up some temporary safe houses. A boot scuffing on gravel reminded him that Kate hadn't left yet. "Need something?" he asked.
"Nope. You do though."
Henry was sick of the innuendo. He looked up and glared at Kate. "Be useful or go away."
Crossing her arms, she looked him over from head to toe. For once, the smirk was mostly absent. "You're not crying in a crate like our feathery friends, but you're pretty damn close to baying at the moon. Pretty obvious you miss Blondie, Hank."
Henry gritted his teeth. "She was my oldest friend, one of my best friends, of course I miss her." It had been weeks, but that didn't mean there wasn't a hole in his life.
Kate was actually being serious, but Henry wasn't sure he liked it. He turned his attention back to the manifest. Ash had died for this and he wasn't about to let it fall apart on his watch. It didn't fill the hole or ease the lingering sense of guilt, but it did soften the edges. She would have wanted things to go on. Ashley had fought to the end. Henry could do no less.
"Hey. I get it. We all miss people," Kate told him. She said this quickly, like she didn't mean to be saying the words but they came out anyway.
Henry looked up from his computer. She was watching out the windows, scanning them really. He'd noticed she never really relaxed, always anticipating an attack.
"You lost your family?" He didn't know if she was lying or not; with her it was hard to tell. She hardly ever talked about her past, which made Henry suspicious of what angle she was working. She...smelled genuine though. The handful of times she'd mentioned anyone, she'd confused her tenses which made him think they might be gone, gone. Magnus still did that sometimes with Ashley. He did too.
He'd never thought of her having anyone before. She just seemed to have sprung to life, fully formed, like some kind of black market Athena.
"Kind of," she said, pushing away from the wall. "But you know what helps me get to sleep at night? I know I'll see them again."
"You're telling me to have faith or something here?" He gestured with the stylus. "That one day I'll just appear at some pearly gates and Ash is gonna be standing there rocking some wings and a halo, ready to welcome me into the club?" Henry didn't get how they were having this conversation. Sure, she'd shown some degree of willingness to be a team player, but this was too much.
"All dogs go to heaven." The smirking insincerity was back, full force.
Henry felt like he'd been played. He probably had. "Okay, that's it!" Henry rounded on her and it was hard not to let the wolf out to hurt her.
Kate held up a hand but otherwise stood her ground, expression flat. She wasn't afraid and that only made the wolf more angry.
"Down boy. Look, all I am saying is that sometimes things work out for the best, okay? Now if you excuse me, I have places to be. Later!" Kate said, waving as she sashayed her way out of the room.
Henry watched her go. He'd not seen the flat look from her, before. She almost looked... hurt. This was Kate, though, another part of him growled. Kate didn't really give a damn. Something chittered in a crate, which set the rest off. Henry turned back to his work with an unsettled feeling in his gut.
Nikola waltzed into her office perhaps an hour after she'd sent him the note to meet her. Henry had been called too, but he'd already come and gone, having responded in a more reasonable timeframe.
"Nikola," Helen said. Chastising him was of no use, so she didn't bother. "Henry informs me that the new security grid designs are completed and that the upgrades to our software security are also done."
He nodded and went to her brandy, frowning when he saw how low it was. John had been in earlier and she'd instructed her Old Friend not to refill it. If they wanted to drink in her office, the could bloody well bring their own alcohol.
"Your pet werewolf is marginally less stupid than others I've worked with."
"I'm sending you to Rio."
Nikola paused in his pouring, but then continued. "Have I offended you that greatly?" he asked.
"It's a matter of security. We'll be sending our new software updates by courier. John's agreed to make some of the drops for us, however Rio also needs to have hardware modifications. They're our fallback position for the region. Henry will be going to Mumbai to do the same thing, in a few days."
He leaned against the side of the wingback chair John preferred and considered the situation. "I suppose," he said at length, "we'll have fewer issues if I install their upgrades. When do I leave?"
"As soon as John returns. "
Nikola grimaced. "Delightful."
"Try to be polite," Helen asked. "I don't agree with the other Heads of House all the time, but we must be united if we are to survive."
Nikola studied her expression for an intense moment. There was little emotion to read in his eyes, he kept himself so guarded. Helen had little energy for games with those closest to her, so she gave him a look that said she really needed him to behave. His eyes softened a fraction, letting her see that he was a little scared too, and he nodded. He understood.
"Thank you." Trying to see the up-side she added, "It's only for a few days and the weather there is magnificent. Perhaps it won't be all bad."
He never remembered falling asleep, but that wasn't unusual. Likewise, it wasn't unusual for him to be aware that he was dreaming. Dreams could be important tools for introspection, but sometimes it was just the result of eating something odd, or a change in temperature, or too much of the day bleeding together as the mind sorted events. One merely had to wait and see what shape the dream would take.
He found himself walking through an impossibly huge hallway, supported by massive columns of stone and metal. Diffuse light poured in, rendered golden by the setting sun. It was quiet; tranquil. He was a Jedi Master. Around him, other Jedi walked alone or in quiet pairs.
He faltered a step, because the voice at his side was not one he'd heard in months.
Ashley walked beside him in the dream, also dressed as a Jedi – a knight since she lacked the braid of a Padawan. She was examining her lightsaber with glee. It snapped on with a hum, revealing the purple blade she'd always expressed a preference for in life. She hopped to the side using the Force to aid her then executed a series of graceful twists, parries and thrusts.
She turned off the lightsaber, hung it on her belt, and practically skipped back over to his side. "This is the coolest thing ever! I hope Henry's here too. He's always wanted a real lightsaber."
He drew in a deep breath, and then let it out again. How many times had she been just like this on a trip? Giving her a fond – if stern – look, he said, "This is a temple." He nodded subtly to the other Jedi, many of whom had stopped and were looking at them with curiosity.
Ashley smirked and hid her hands in the wide sleeves of her robe. She bowed. "Sorry, Master. I'll be more quiet."
He chuckled. "Wisdom, there is, when you are calm."
She snorted a laugh, hiding it behind her hand when it echoed off the columns. "Good Yoda impression," she complimented, pitching her voice low.
"Indeed," another voice added.
Ashley gasped in surprise and glee. Master Yoda floated on a little cushioned platform.
"Master Yoda," they both said, inclining their heads in respect.
"Done well training your apprentice, you have. Become a true Jedi knight, she has."
He bowed his head again. "Thank you, Master." The triple sausage pizza with Kate and Henry watching Clone Wars had probably caused this, he thought with no small amount of amusement.
"An easy task, it must have been not."
Ashley made a little stifled sound of part amusement, part indignant protest.
He was quiet and again bowed to Yoda. "There were difficult days, many grey hairs, but she proved worth it in the end."
"Ask of your services now, I must. Task of great importance for you both, have I." He gestured and a little holographic picture of an ornate cube appeared in the air. "Important, this holocron is. Retrieve it, you must. Jedi Magnus, you, in charge of this mission, will be, but need the assistance of your master, you will."
"Where is it located, Master?" Ashley asked.
Yoda floated a little data crystal into her hand.
"The Outer Rim. Keep this on the down low, you must."
He blinked. As did Ashley. This was a weird dream.
"What the kids are saying these days, this is, yes, hmm?"
A very weird dream.
Ashley bowed her head. "Yes Master. We'll secure a discreet vessel and retrieve the holocron."
They left the temple and he followed Ashley down into the depths of Coruscant. The lighting grew dimmer as they travelled further into the artificial canyons created by the massive buildings. Several hundred stories below the higher-rent, more genteel levels of the city, the slums of Coruscant were teeming with all manner of questionable activity.
The bar Ashley stopped at was a seedy place, even compared to other such bars. They'd pulled their hoods up, but they wouldn't be taken as anything other than Jedi, dressed as they were.
"The Cuddly Bantha," Ashley said, gazing down at the bar's entrance from a higher level. Some poor sod was tossed out on his rear into the walkway. "You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy."
He arched a brow at her.
"Well, on Coruscant," she amended.
He chuckled. They jumped down to the bar's level and entered.
An obnoxious alien pop tune was being played out of a dilapidated speaker system where there had once been a stage for live musicians. The floor was slightly sticky with things he didn't even want to consider and the smoke of burned inhalants hung in the air.
They scanned the bar and Ashley gestured subtly to a dark corner where Kate Freelander was holding court over several bottles of something faintly glowing and likely strongly alcoholic. She was dressed like, well, kind of like Han Solo.
"This should be fun," Ashley mused.
"Bet she shoots first."
Ashley laughed as she strode forward. She turned around the chair across from Kate and sat backwards in it.
Kate looked up from her darkened corner. "You're sitting at my table."
"Yep. Wanna talk."
"Hey, I'm not into your hokey religion."
"Fine by me. We need a ship. Fast. Discreet."
"And what does that have to do with me?
"Well you look like the discreet type who'd have a fast ship. We can pay."
Kate eyed her silently.
Will plopped down into the booth beside her. He was also dressed like a bounty hunter or smuggler or some other ne'er do well, but it didn't seem to fit him. There was something too clean-cut about him even here. He bowed from the waist. "Lady Jedi, how might we be of service?"
"Hey now, that's my ship," Kate protested. "I say who gets to go, and Jedi or no, if I don't want Blondie and the Fuzzball, they don't set foot on my ship."
"You're being very rude."
"What's with the protocol droid?" Ashley asked Kate, smirking at Will.
"Kicked out of the Navy for being too damn honest," Kate said.
"I think you should take their offer," Will said. Then a little more quietly, he added, "We need the cash."
Kate rolled her eyes at him. "Broadcast that to the whole bar, why don't you?"
They bickered for a bit, ignoring the Jedi.
"There's a faster way to do this," he told Ashley.
"Hmm," he said, nodding gravely.
Ashley tapped her fingers on the table. "Master," she gestured for him to proceed.
He smiled and wiped a hand across the scene. It worked exactly as he'd imagined it would.
"And we're suddenly on another planet in front of a temple carved into the side of a mountain," Ashley said, looking around.
He laughed. "Lucid dreaming." A useful skill every young shaman learned.
"Oh. I guess you can't just give me the holocron then?"
"Do you know where it is?"
"Somewhere in there I expect," he said, gesturing to the temple. "Let's go," he cuffed her lightly in the back of the head as he walked toward the gaping maw of an entrance.
She followed. "Why can't you just tell me? It's your dream."
He laughed. "Don't be so impatient." There was a reason he was in this dream. It seemed silly to waste the lesson. She was hunting for a holocron, a repository of Jedi knowledge and experience. It was a symbol.
She sighed but was quiet. The sound brought on a smile. It was good to remember the happy times with her as a girl. The little frustrated-yet-resigned sigh as she gave in and followed along with his lesson was one such memory. Ashley had always been a little impatient, a trait she got from her mother. Ashley wouldn't ever learn to grow out of it now. He reflected on her life during the quiet walk to the temple entrance. Well, he walked. She bounced around using the Force, clearly enjoying her new agility. He wondered if this was her spirit, or if he was simply dreaming his desire to see his family whole again.
It was cool inside the temple. The interior was lit by ancient crystalline lights that still gave off some glow, and by huge windows cut into the mountain's face, exposing the inner rock to sunlight. Their steps echoed hollowly. There were no footsteps in the dirt, save for small tracks left by animals.
"Do you remember the first time I took you tracking?"
She nodded. "We followed some deer for what seemed like ages." Looking into the distance, she wore a faint smile. "I was so surprised when they didn't run immediately."
He'd been taught by his uncle, the huntmaster for his clan, who'd taught all the children. He'd never be able to teach his own children because of his exile, but Henry and Ashley had stood in their place just fine.
"Hmm, now that's something."
They stood at the edge of a natural cavern. The mountain was an ancient volcano, and high above, they could see the rim. It was large enough that the floor of the cavern was covered in green plantlife. A little stream fed a pond which drained out to one side. Animals made noises in the brush.
"We should sit for awhile," he said, heading for a spot under a weeping willow-like tree. The flowers on the branches were blue and glowed faintly. It was peaceful.
"But I need to get the Holocron for Master Yoda. I can't believe I just said that."
He laughed and settled down, gesturing to the rock beside him. "We should take a moment. Someone went to a lot of work to keep it a garden. It'd almost be rude not to enjoy it."
"Maybe I'll have a vision of where it is." She sat awkwardly on the stone, then finally relaxed.
This dream... This vision... What did it mean? What lesson was she here to teach him? His training as a shaman told him this was no ordinary dream. He watched her out of the corner of his eye for a few moments. She wore a small frown as she often did when she was preoccupied.
"We tried to find you."
"I know." She looked back at him. "Biggie?"
"Is... Is Mom okay?"
"She misses you. We all do."
"I-I'm sorry I pushed for Henry and me to go on that mission."
"I think they would have just tried something else."
She shrugged a shoulder. "Still. Not looking before I leaped got me into trouble, again."
He couldn't really deny that, but she was hardly the first, and would not be the last.
"If you were still alive, I would have told you to be more careful, but I wouldn't have been angry. Things were rather desperate at the time. You're... You were still learning."
"What would you have taught me?"
"Hmm," he hummed in thought. "When I was younger, my teacher thought I was too hasty. He led me into the forest and had me sit, just like this, and listen." He breathed in and out. It had been something he'd liked about the Star Wars movies when he'd first seen them; a little bit of home here in this strange concrete and metal jungle. Perhaps that was why he was dreaming this now.
"It took awhile to learn to be calm. It was hard to sit still and watch. Gradually, however, I learned." He observed the dream around him. "I tried to teach that to you, but I should have done more."
"Hey," she reached over and touched his shoulder. "You and I both know I don't like sitting still. You did the best you could and maybe I wasn't ready to listen. It's okay."
"Teach me now?"
He considered her for a moment, then nodded. "Don't think about anything but what you see. Put your doubts and worries and plans aside and simply observe the world. Be in the moment."
"Just be and let go," he said, voice soft. "It's hard, but let go. Yes, you've made mistakes, but they didn't define you."
"I-It was horrible. What they made me do. If I'd been more careful —"
"They would have done something else," he reiterated. "I never told you how I was exiled. How I lost my name?"
She shook her head.
He should have shared that with her. Helen didn't even know, had never pried. Perhaps it was a final lesson he could give her spirit; allow her to rest.
"My clan had a blood rivalry with the local tribe of Wendigoes. I was an apprentice shaman, which meant I was exempt from some rules and had to obey others. I was young and hasty and full of myself." He took a long breath in and out. "There was a young member of the other tribe who'd been lost and had been caught by a bear trap. After tracking him for several miles, I couldn't stand the thought of him hurting, so I freed him from the trap, wrapped his wound, and escorted him out of our territory."
"You broke the rules?"
He grunted. "No. The Shaman can aid whomsoever they wish, even a blood enemy. It wasn't a popular act with the rest of my people, and I was shunned for a time because of it. No, my crime was going too far."
"You tried to make peace?"
"It was more complicated than that. I tried to force the issue. They weren't so different from us and had children who could get lost and hurt. I thought that if I could only make the elders see, then everything would be fine. So, I drugged them during a ritual. I was convinced that if I could take them on a spirit walk with me, show them, everything would be fine. I told no one of my plans and I acted."
He looked over at the spirit. "It was an unforgivable offense. The herbs I used were forbidden to non-shamen for a reason and many of our hunters and gatherers were ill for weeks. As bad as that was, forcing someone to confront the truth of things was the far worse. It is not the place of the shaman to control the thoughts and actions of others. In trying to do what I thought was right, I'd betrayed the trust put in me by my teacher, by my elders, and by the tribe as a whole. When I explained myself, some had agreed that the goal was noble, even if my actions had not been. Because I was young and had not intended to do harm, I was not killed. Instead I was stripped of my name and exiled." He paused then added in a soft voice, "Some called it a worse punishment."
Ashley pondered that for for awhile with a small frown on her face. He sat back and closed his eyes, drawing on the peace of the surroundings to ease the ache in his heart. It was an old wound now. He'd learned to accept that some things couldn't be changed, and he'd become more cautious. Overly cautious for a long time, but he'd found the balance of his life.
They sat in silence. He didn't know how much time had passed, but then it was a dream, and such things were fluid.
"Hmm?" He opened one eye and looked at her. The spirit was shimmering slightly, wearing the clothing he'd last seen her in.
"Thank you." A small, glowing cube floated in the air above her hand. Her fingers closed around it and she smiled at him. "Take care of Mom while I'm gone." The shimmering grew until all was light around him.
He woke to early morning sunlight streaming in through his window. He drew in a deep breath, and let it out slowly.
She needed another box. This one would be the last one. Helen had put this task off as long as she could, but finally she had to face it. With the number of refugees pouring in, Ashley's room would soon be needed.
"Hello, Old Friend," Magnus said. She took a box from the stack in the corner and began to assemble it. "Do we have any more of the locking containers? I wasn't able to find any."
"No. There’s an order in for a few more. Should be here Monday." Unless they began to have problems, was the unspoken thought.
Helen looked up and it was clear she'd had the same idea he had. She paused in her box construction for a moment before continuing. "Pass the packing tape, please?"
He did so. "So. Who'd the Toyko pick as a replacement?" he asked.
He nodded. "Should make Rio happy." He snorted a laugh. "As if that woman has ever been happy in her life."
Helen's smile was tight. "She's not all that bad." The Head of Rio was an unpleasant person who took seemingly every opportunity to oppose Helen, but she was fanatically loyal to her house and the abnormals of the region.
Her old friend gave her a look.
Her expression turned rueful as she finished the box. "I'll need at least one of the locking boxes," she told him. "I-I'm cleaning out her room."
He reached out to her as she reached the door. "Helen."
She looked at him, taking a moment to compose herself. "Yes?"
"I dreamed of Ashley last night," he said. He found himself frowning in recollection. "I think we were Jedi."
A very small smile made an appearance on her lips for a moment. "Jedi?"
He grunted, shrugging one shoulder. "Dreams appear as they are." He leaned on the table he was working on. "She was looking for something. I was helping her."
"Did she find what she was looking for?" Helen asked, voice very soft.
He nodded. "We found it."
Helen smiled to herself. "That's good then." She drew in a deep breath. "If you need me, you know where to find me."
Helen watched the motes of dust play in the sunlight from the window. She closed her eyes and felt the sun warm her skin as she remembered.
The room was musty from disuse and it needed to be cleaned, but the windows were spectacular and the view even more so. Ashley immediately ran to them, pressing her hands and face to the glass as she looked out over the grounds and the city. She ran back to Helen, arms outstretched. Helen met her with a hug by the door.
"I want this one."
"It's awfully far," Helen said. Ashley's current room had been the nursery she'd prepared to welcome her daughter. As much as she wanted to keep her close, it wasn't suitable anymore. This room was well down the long central hall of the rambling mansion. Helen was worried Ashley would need her in the night and she wouldn't hear.
"You said I could have any of the rooms no one had on the floor. You promised!" Ashley pouted as though she were three and not seven.
"I did, didn't I?" Helen murmured, standing and taking Ashley's hands in her own. She looked around, noting the details and items her daughter would need to furnish the space.
Ashley looked up at her with huge, hopeful eyes and Helen knew she couldn't say no. "If I agree to this, you'll have to make sure you keep it clean. No shirking."
Ashley crossed her heart. "I promise I will."
"I don't know," Helen mused. "It is awfully large."
"You did keep your grades up and this is a much better room for a growing girl. Okay. We'll move you up after we've given the room a good cleaning."
Ashley cheered and ran around, her footsteps echoing off the bare walls and floor. Helen smiled and watched her race into the bathroom then into the closets and out again. She collided with Helen's side, wrapping her arms around her waist and looked up at her with a huge grin that was missing a tooth. Helen brushed her hair out of her face and smiled.
"Love you, Mom."
"Love you too, Ashley," Helen murmured into the silence. She took a deep, shuddering breath and closed the lid of the box. She'd packed her daughter's clothing the day before, and she'd already had the workout equipment broken down and reassembled in the gym, just down the hall. The bathroom smelled like her still. Helen had gone in once in a fit of worried insomnia and had tidied it up for her, anticipating her safe return. Helen had packed that yesterday as well.
What had remained were Ashley's personal effects in her dresser. Those, she'd just finished packing into a box of their own. Missing from Ashley's jewelry box was the silver necklace she'd almost never been without from the moment Helen had given it to her on her sixteenth birthday. The necklace she'd lain to rest had stood in for that one much as it had been a way for her to symbolically let her daughter go.
The time for grief had been brief, not even a full day. Now, she took what time she could in the lulls between attacks; precious moments where she remembered her daughter and what she was fighting for.
A gentle knock drew Helen's attention. She wiped at her eyes and stood with the box before turning. Will lurked at the door with understanding pain in his eyes. He looked around the room. Helen thought it was now painfully empty, lacking the life and vibrancy Ashley's things had given to the space. Her footsteps on the wooden flooring rang hollow.
"Its been a long time. With refugees still coming in, and the Cabal still attacking us from the shadows? We'll need the space," Helen explained, passing by him. She felt her heart jump to her throat and looked away. She had to stop just outside the door.
Will reached up, resting a hand on her shoulder, understanding and simply being there for her. He'd lost loved ones and though the torture of losing a child wasn't the same, out of everyone, he understood perhaps the best. At the very least, he was the only one she felt she could speak with.
"I can still see her. Hear her," she admitted, taking that first step down the long hallway. The vision of John and Ashley in the days after had only been the first instances. She needed more sleep, likely, but it would be a long time before she could rest easily. Will let her lead and remained silent while she tried to explain. "She was my everything." Those words hardly covered what she felt. There simply wasn't a way to convey all she felt.
"Ashley will always be a part of you," Will told her, squeezing her shoulder. "Nothing will ever change that."
"I know. And I will always love her." She could see a teenage Ashley, sprawled in the window seat, chin in hand, absently blowing her hair out of her face as she read an assignment. The image brought a sad smile to her lips. With regret, she looked away. "It hurts."
Will opened the door for her and stood respectfully in the doorway. Helen set the box down on the seat of her vanity then wiped her eyes.
"When she was a child, she'd sit next to me here. She'd watch me put on makeup and try on my things." Helen could see Ashley's sunny smile in the mirror as she draped necklaces over her head. "I planned extra time getting ready for formal occasions so we could play." Will's image stepped into view, disrupting the memory.
Helen closed her eyes and hot tears rolled down her cheeks. She let them.
Will's hand on her shoulder was tentative at first as he drew her into a hug. She shuddered under the weight of her grief and hugged him back, taking the comfort offered. They stayed like that for several minutes, and Helen was surprised to find she did feel a little better when they broke apart.
"You okay?" he asked, staring at her searchingly. Helen knew he was evaluating her as a patient as well as a friend.
Helen looked down at her hands. "No. Not yet." She looked back at Will, "But I must go on anyway." Helen bit her lip and forced the tears back. "Ashley'd be the first to tell me I had work to do and to stop moping. She'd want me to fight."
Her heart still ached, but there was a growing feeling of resolution as well. Every instinct in her screamed that Ashley was merely lost, not dead. Wherever she was, though, her little girl was out of reach, possibly forever. Nothing Helen could do would change that. Life moved on.
"Who's come to us from Moscow?" Helen asked. She needed to focus on her work.
The Moscow Sanctuary had been hit hard, but not as badly as Tokyo or Beijing, where they'd been... decimated. They'd managed to evacuate everyone remaining in those locations and had bolstered the defenses of the others. While the most damaged Sanctuaries were undergoing more permanent repairs, a process now complicated by the Cabal's financial influence, their collections had been moved around the world to other safe locations. The Old City Sanctuary had already been hosting some of those collections when Moscow had been attacked. Mumbai was already overcrowded from Beijing. Though Nikola was dealing with it currently, Rio wasn't yet secure enough. Jakarta was hosting the remains of Tokyo, and Berlin was undergoing massive repairs. They didn't really have the room, but they could make some.
Will nodded slowly, seeming to get that she recognized she needed to move forward. "I've got the list here."
Helen walked beside Will, listening as he ran through the inventory. Walking down the grand staircase, Helen was struck with a sense of déjà vu. She paused at the top step, then frowned as she continued.
Shaking her head, Helen shook off the sensation. "Déjà vu," she waved off his concern. "You were saying?"
"Maybe you should get some sleep," Will said, waiting for her on the landing.
"It's nothing," Helen said, "Just long term and short term memory colliding." She continued down the stairs as if nothing had happened, yet she felt Will's eyes on her. Will caught up by the bottom.
"Are you sure you're okay? We can cover for a few hours if you need a break."
"No. I'll turn in early tonight," she said. They both knew she was lying, but Will didn't call her on it. This time.
The nesting dolls in the crate on top were actually containers with some unusual small mammal samples prepared in a way traditional to the northernmost reaches of Eurasia. "Those can go in dry storage." Helen indicated. Might as well start at the top of the pile.
"If there's room," Kate chimed in. She was wiping a fine layer of dust off her clothing and a cobweb was caught in her hair. "We're just about full downstairs."
"Then use the storage space in the attic," Helen directed.
Helen looked up as her Old Friend jogged over, phone in hand. Helen moved to accept the phone, noting the worried look on his face.
He grunted. "Word from the docks. Another refugee group."
Helen nodded grimly. "Magnus speaking."
"Magnus. Ferdinand. My boys just helped a group cross the border. They said you once promised them sanctuary."
"Bunch of bird people. Look like natives." Ferdinand growled something in a dialect of Greek over his shoulder. "Anyway, you wanna take 'em off my hands? I don't mind helping here, Magnus, but I don't want the Big C taking a harder look at my people. I'm already out on a limb here helping you."
"And it's appreciated, I —"
"I'm doing it 'cause I owed your kid. She was good people."
Helen felt her heart lurch into her throat. "That she was. How many are we looking at?"
"About a dozen adults, half a dozen kids."
"We'll be there with proper transportation."
Ferdinand told her a time and the call was cut off. As brisk as the Satyr was, that was downright friendly by their standards.
Turning to Will and Biggie, she said, "There is a situation at the docks we need to take care of. We're going to have more company, so we'll need to make arrangements."
"Someone bringing in baba yaga?" Kate asked. She was pulling the spider web from her hair with a look of distaste.
"This was a unrelated to the situation in Moscow. A clan of Satyrs is assisting a clan of North American Corvids."
"What, like crows?" Will asked.
"Similar. Genetically they're cousins of the Tengu who migrated from Asia sometime during the last ice age and took up residence in North America. They've crossed the border in a shipping container."
"Cabal chase them down here, huh?" Kate said.
"Sounds like they'll fit right in," Kate quipped, trying to flick the cobweb off her fingers. "Want a hand?" she offered, smiling as she finally succeeded in ditching the spiderweb on Will's shoulder.
Will sent her a pleading look, so Helen relented. "Alright. Come with me then. We'll make arrangements for transport. Will, please inform Henry of the situation and that we'll be leaving in twenty minutes."
"Cool. Seeya Z-man."
Helen fought the urge to rub her temples as she led the way to the garage. Sometimes it was like dealing with a pack of children.
The dark van wove in and out of the late night traffic, making good time. Kate had instructed Helen's Old Friend to "drive casual", and he'd laughed. So had Henry and Will. The tension had eased a little as the small group piled into their vehicles. Helen watched the cars fall behind them through the shaded window. A transport truck, driven by Henry and Will, followed behind, but nothing else she could see. Helen couldn't quite shake the feeling that she was being watched, however. She spared a look for the other occupant of the van. Kate had managed to find a relaxed position in her claimed seat and was currently sipping something a particularly virulent shade of green and no doubt sugary. If she'd been looking at Helen, she wasn't now. Helen resumed watching for tailing Cabal agents.
Helen forced her jaw to unclench as they rolled into a parking space by the docks. Ferdinand hadn't been as forthcoming with her as he had once been with her daughter. He and his people hadn't gone to ground during the conflict though. For that, Helen was grateful.
Another thing she was grateful for was that hardly anyone was around this late at night. Helen hoped that would continue to be the case. She couldn't shake the itchy feeling between her shoulder blades, the touch of unseen eyes.
Helen and Kate left the others by the van, boots crunching on the gravel as they made their way to the meeting point. The city lights bounced off the low cloud cover, creating a sickly yellow-orange twilight. Fall wind found it's way between the warehouses and onto uncovered skin, a chilly promise of winter. Kate paused, turning her face into the wind. Helen stopped as well. She studied the younger woman for half a moment as she searched the area, then began to take her own survey. Senses straining, Helen found nothing amiss other than the general tension in the air. The feeling of being watched had eased as well. Shaking her head, Kate continued onward. Helen fell back into step with her, eyes and ears alert.
Ferdinand was a rather swarthy Satyr, with longshoreman's pants that didn't quite hide the odd shape of his legs. He wore a bright orange knit cap over his small horns and pointed ears. He chewed on a toothpick.
"Magnus. Who's your friend?" he asked, jerking his head toward Kate. The Satyr's mouth firmed into a thin line around the wood.
Helen nodded a businesslike greeting. "Ms. Freelander works for me." Not all of the proper introductions had been made, given their current circumstances.
He grunted and stalked forward in an oddly rolling gait, slipping off his sunglasses. He had goat's eyes – yellow with square pupils. Kate didn't flinch. Quite the opposite in fact, she got into the Satyr's face.
"You got something to say, goatboy?"
Ferdinand sniffed, snorted, and slipped his sunglasses back on, resting them on his cap. "They're back here." He turned and walked away without another glance. Helen and Kate followed. He stopped at a large shipping container. It was already open and some of his fellows, other Satyrs Helen was certain, were casually loitering around. One was running around with a small ball of feathers on his shoulders, another with a rather aquiline nose and long coat, was leaning against a crate.
The shipping container smelled lived in, but it wasn't the sickly sort of smell that indicated a state of extremes. The families had obviously been cooped up for some time however, and several pairs of intelligent black eyes looked very relieved to see her. They were birdlike abnormals, strongly resembling ravens, though they only stood four feet tall. They had three clawed digits at the wrist joint of their wings, and their bird-like feet were wrapped in leather straps. They wore very simple pants and tunics with bright beading and embroidery. Beads and bells hung from the long feathers on their heads, jingling quietly. The children were asleep save for the one riding Satyr-back. With any luck, this would be an easy transfer.
"Hello, everyone. If you'll collect your children and belongings, we'll be on our way."
The eldest, or at least Helen assumed he was the eldest as his feathers had greyed to a deep charcoal from inky black, stood. He bowed, small vestigial wings spread to either side in an elegant gesture. "Thank you for aiding us, Dr. Magnus." The voice that spoke was surprisingly deep for such a delicate looking creature.
Helen smiled. "It was no trouble. Now if you please, I'd rather we hurry."
The elder nodded, gesturing for his kin to collect themselves and hurry about it. "I'll collect Sadie from her new friend," he said to the flock. There were chuckles, clucking-cawing sounds, from the other adults as they gathered themselves. The small joke had been much like Kate's earlier, easing the tension in the air. They were afraid.
The child, reluctant to give up her new friend, sqwaked indignantly as the Elder tried to retrieve her.
"Hey," Kate spoke up.
Helen looked over sharply, ready to reprimand the younger woman, but she was handing the fluffy bird-girl one of the many shiny bracelets she wore. Entranced by the brightly colored beads, the girl allowed the Elder to take her from the relieved looking Satyr. Helen gave her a nod of approval before they both fell into the loose perimeter around the group as they made their way to the waiting vans.
This was, of course, when it all went to hell.
Kate was shouting "Down!" and tackling the lead Satyr out of the way just as Magnus recognized the red dot on the back of his head for what it was. There was a popping noise, and the wall where his head had been sported a neat little hole.
The flock of abnormals began to squawk in terror, running into the Satyrs that made up the perimeter.
"Take cover! Stay together!" Magnus ordered. She pulled the nearest two adults along with her behind a stack of crates. There were more red laser sights and more popping noises as silenced weapons hit their marks. Kate had turned and was laying down suppressing fire on the forces attacking them.
"Henry!" Helen screamed into her radio. "Henry! We're under fire!" She winced away as the line squealed in static.
"Okay boys," Ferdinand growled, pulling out a .45, "If they want to take us, they'll be getting a fight!"
"We need to get out of here. All of us!" Helen said, pulling out her own weapon.
"Well, I'm not going to bake them cookies!" Ferdinand hollered back. He squeezed off a few shots at a sniper that had been aiming to line up a better shot.
Helen was hauled backwards and where her shoulder had been, a dart stuck in the side of the shipping container. Kate fired in the direction of the shooter and Helen caught sight of someone ducking behind another crate.
"Watch it, Boss," Kate suggested.
"Thank you," Helen said, plucking out the dart with a quick motion. As she suspected, the tip was a needle. Likely the substance inside was a sedative. She dropped it to the ground, crushing it under her boot heel so it would not harm anyone accidentally. One had hit a flock member and the adult female had gone down, body still shielding the child she held. She knelt by the female and found her unconscious, thankfully.
"Where's Hank with the van?" Kate asked.
"Static on the line!" Helen told her. She tried her radio again, just in case, but there was still static. “They’re jamming our communications!”
"They're closing in, Magnus!" Ferdinand called out, nodding in the direction of some moving shapes in the dark. She could imagine the heavy boots coming for them, their grind on the gravel, but the close range gunfire had left her ears ringing.
Helen whirled around, heart leaping into her throat, but there was only confusion among the refugees. One of the children must have called out for their mother, she reasoned, focusing on the situation. The people here needed her to be wholly present.
She shot off a few more rounds before she had to reload, easily swapping magazines with the ease of long practice. The smell of gunpowder hung in the air with the more acrid scent of the agitated abnormal refugees. The wind gusted down, bringing in the smell of the river as well. Helen tried her radio again, but was still met with static. Surely they had to have heard something by now? Or had they been taken? Her gut clenched.
The ground rumbled and Helen wondered what that was before the black van and the larger transport skidded into view, interposing between the shooters and the refugees. The moment of relief was short-lived, however; they still had to actually escape.
Kate laid down cover fire and Helen raced ahead to wrench open the door at the back of the van. She and the Satyrs began handing up the smaller Corvids, filling the van. Others piled into the second vehicle. Once everyone was inside, Kate hauled Helen up as well and they shut the door.
"Drive!" Helen yelled over the cacophony and the ringing of her ears. She nearly lost her footing as the van lurched ahead, wheels spinning on the gravel. "Keep everyone calm," she ordered as she made her way forward.
Kate finished securing her weapon and sketched off a salute, her face drawn in a rare expression of serious concern.
They only shook their pursuers when they were about a quarter mile from the Sanctuary, but Henry and her Old Friend didn't slow down until they'd passed through the gates. She climbed out of the van and exchanged a look with her people. It had been close.
"Will, please help our guests settle in, I'll see to any injuries in the infirmary."
Steeling herself for a long night, Helen led the way into the depths of the Sanctuary.
The Sanctuary in Rio de Janeiro was located in a neighborhood called Gávea. The hilly complex was a series of buildings behind a tall brickwork fence. It featured a lovely view of the beach and the nearby slums. The weather was gorgeous, the food was acceptable, the equipment marginally out of date, the staff were all imbeciles, and the head of house was a bitch.
Worst of all, however, was the omnipresent, unceasing, Samba.
He'd easily chased the IT underlings away once their boss had burst into tears. It had made the room quiet and he'd managed to get some real work done, He almost felt sorry for Foss in having to correspond with them; Foss at least had marginal capabilities.
The new security grid included a software upgrade that had come with him on a little jump drive. Mr. Foss had declared that their security would be more secure if they didn't just send the data to one another via the Internet. It was paranoid, but not entirely unwarranted. Rio's IT overlord was new, and the Sanctuary would also be receiving brand new hardware to enhance their security grid, which is why Nikola was there. He'd built it after all, and he hardly trusted the locals to install it properly.
There was a knock at the door. "Mr. Tesla?"
"I'm busy. If you'd like to keep the Cabal away, you'll let me finish my work and then I can leave and everyone will be happy."
Claws clicked on the stone floor. "I'll just be a moment," the soft voice said. Her accent was Spanish, not Portuguese, mixed with something else. "I wanted to give you something for helping us, and something for Dr. Magnus."
Nikola turned around. The speaker was a Quetzalcoatl, a member of a sub-species of humanoid dragon that was native to the South Americas. She had large amber-colored eyes, a leaf-green hide and long plumage in jewel-tone reds, greens, and blues. She wore jean shorts and a blouse top with probably ten five pounds of beaded necklaces in a riot of color. A headset hung around her neck, the red cord disappearing into a pocket. Honestly, she looked little bit like Steve in drag with a parrot glued to her head. Tesla arched a brow at her.
She held out two small commercial jewelery boxes, the many bracelets on her wrists clinking with the movement. "Here. The top one is for you."
He opened the box and was surprised to find a metal tie clip. The cast symbol appeared at first to be an abstract assortment of lines and shapes, but resolved into a schematic representation of his first alternating current dynamo. It was well-crafted and tasteful.
"Your work was very important to the world. We couldn't have the spread of information we do now, without it." She paused significantly, though Tesla couldn't see why. She tapped the lower box with a claw. "There is a necklace in there for Dr. Magnus," she said. "I would appreciate it if you gave it to her for me. Ashley was a very good friend of mine. Tell her it's from Xilo."
Tesla slipped both boxes into his coat pocket.
"Thank you," he said, and then eyed her curiously. "You're a bit far from home."
"The weather's better down here."
"I'm an artist. The community here is more accepting of people like me." She lifted a scaly eyebrow. "And there are more rich patrons."
"Well the weather is nicer here, but how do you stand the constant Samba?"
"Noise cancelling headphones," she smirked, tapping her headset. "I have a box of earplugs I use when I cut metal if you'd like some."
Tesla smirked. He just might take her up on that offer. "I'll take these but don't tell anyone else I'm playing carrier pigeon."
Xilo nodded. "Of course. Thank you." She left, the long plumes at the end of her tail swishing in the air.
Tesla turned back to his work, but something kept bothering him about the exchange. He withdrew the boxes. The gift to Helen was a delicate and elegant piece of layered metal welded together. It formed a pendant with some sort of glyph – Mayan or Aztec or something. He put that away then studied the tie clip again, turning it over in his hands. The circular part gave with some pressure. Curious, as it didn't seem to be a flaw in the design, he pressed until the circle turned, revealing a small compartment which was just big enough to contain a micro-SD card. Nikola quietly closed the compartment and placed the tie clip back into the box.
Helen returned to her room as dawn broke. She looked at her bed for a long moment before reaching instead for a clean shirt and pair of pants. Sleep could come later. Her phone rang, startling her. Rolling her eyes at herself, she answered the Blackberry. Rio's number flashed on the caller ID. Helen gritted her teeth. González was blunt, to put it mildly. Conversations with her were difficult even when they agreed on a subject.
"I'm sending your pet vampire back," the werejaguar said without preamble.
Helen pinched the bridge of her nose. "What's he done now?"
"Drunk nearly five thousand reais worth of wine for starters." Maria González's words were clipped, her accent a peculiar mix; English via Spanish and Brazillian Portuguese. It would have been lovely if her words had held any warmth.
Helen rubbed her temples. She'd pay for that. "Did he finish the upgrade to your security systems?"
"So he claims," Maria said, her tone flat. "I have to question your association with him, Helen."
"Nikola is a good friend of mine —"
"Who disappeared for nearly sixty years," Maria pointed out reasonably. "He only resurfaced when he incited the Cabal to come after him. I find that curious."
Helen grimaced, doing her best to keep her feelings out of her voice. "Is it?" she asked. "He was walking in hidden circles and fled to friends when he couldn't escape them. They're powerful, Maria." It hurt to admit that, but she'd never claimed to be the most powerful abnormal-oriented organization in the world.
It had just been assumed so for lack of evidence to the contrary.
You know what they say about when you assume? she could practically hear her father chiding her.
"Hmm," Maria mused. "He's insulting and disruptive. If we weren't stretched so thin, I'd not have let him on my grounds. Keep him if you wish, but I'll not have him back here."
"As you like."
"I wish to discuss London."
"What about London?"
"Young Declan is a capable gentleman, but would be better suited to stay in his position —"
"I'm not promoting Aaron over Declan," Helen cut her off. "You and I both know that James was grooming Declan to take over. The transition was already underway. Aaron is a capable field agent, not a manager. I honestly doubt he'd even want the position." Aaron was highly capable, and also a few years older than Declan was, and had worked in more Sanctuaries than Declan had. However, Declan had been with London longer and had been James' choice from among his senior staff. Helen's impression of Aaron was that he preferred field duty to administrative tasks.
"Have you actually asked? People change, Helen. Consider that for your dear old school-mate as well. I expect his transport to arrive within the hour. Good day." She hung up before Helen could speak again.
Seething, Helen locked her phone and put it back on the desk.
The lizard girl was at his bedroom door just as he finished packing.
"What? More gifts?"
"I'm to let you out," she said, holding out a hand for the bag.
If she wanted to play porter, Nikola wasn't going to argue. He handed her the bag and wiped his hands on a kerchief. He looked around but didn't see the Head of House. The were-jaguar HAP had kept their interaction to a minimum during his stay, which was just fine with Nikola.
"The Lady of the House isn't here to make sure I leave?"
Xilo shook her head. "She's in Rocinha today."
Nikola arched an inquisitive brow.
"The favela," she clarified, nodding at the sprawling slum on the mountainside. "Many of our kind live there."
The rest of the walk was spent in silence and Nikola found himself almost liking the lizard girl. She was competent in her area of expertise and she didn't fill a perfectly lovely walk with inane chatter. He'd not had a chance to view what was on the SD card, but he'd be looking into that as soon as possible.
Druitt was scheduled to arrive in a few minutes. The gates of Rio would not be open until then.
"I could use a competent lab assistant familiar with metallurgy," he said. It was true. It'd free him and Foss up for more important tasks and he knew the girl could weld and solder. The expansive metal sculpture in the front atrium was her work, he'd realized after seeing the matching artist's mark. Really, though, if the girl was sending coded messages out, perhaps she wanted to flee. Nikola wasn't entirely without a heart, and the clever initiative was intriguing.
Xilo snorted. "Tempting, but no, thank you. You wouldn't pay nearly as well as the penthouse dwellers in Ipanema. Besides, I have plenty of work here." She inclined her head deeply, her eyes more serious than her tone. She understood the offer he was making, and was choosing to stay, for "work".
There was a flash and Druitt appeared like a living thundercloud of rage and just as cuddly. Xilo handed over Nikola's single case and opened the pedestrian gate. Nikola inclined his head then left. Druitt whisked them away as soon as he was within arm's reach.
They re-appeared just outside the Sanctuary gates.
"Must you do that?" Nikola asked, dusting off his jacket. "Give a little warning at least."
Druitt smirked and let them in the gate.
Nikola rolled his eyes and headed inside, looking for Foss. Curious as he was to see what was on the SD cards, he wanted to be sure it wasn't some sort of malicious virus first.
Helen looked up from her paperwork.
Henry and Nikola entered wearing matching grim expressions.
"What's the matter?"
"While I was in Rio one of the locals gave me a couple gifts. One for me and one for you. Hidden inside were two micro-SD cards," Nikola said.
"Yeah, and once we figured they were safe we read them and they have the same data."
"It seems that Xilo wanted to be sure that the message got out."
"Xilo? She's the jeweler, that —"
"That Ash was buds with. Right," Henry said. He held out a box.
Inside the box was a beautifully worked metal pendant with a Mayan glyph. It had been pushed apart, revealing the small, hidden compartment. Helen closed the pendant and looked up. Nikola was wearing a new tie-clip that had been made by the same hand as her pendant.
"Here," Henry said, handing her a computer.
Displayed on the screen were a series of pictures showing Terrance Wexford and Maria Gonzales having a discussion. It appeared to be fairly heated. On the monitor behind them was the face of the Jakarta head of house.
Henry pulled up a text file that had apparently accompanied the pictures.
Helen read it, each word adding to the sinking feeling in her stomach.
Hopefully, this letter has found you. Wexford of New York is trying to get Maria to agree to something in relation to the current situation with the Cabal. I believe she's not wholly convinced of the idea. Suharto of Jakarta was trying to help. Maria has been critical of you, but she has no love for Wexford. I caught "Sydney". Perhaps Australia is involved in some way as well.
There are many of us in the favelas here, but more flee into the jungles each week. Authorities who once ignored us are looking harder, even harassing us. Trade is difficult and supplies are at a premium. People are frightened, Helen. Tokyo is what everyone talks about, but what they did to Ash is what they're really afraid of. Anyone could be taken. Fear can make people do silly things.
P.S. The pendant is a commission Ash and I were discussing. In the last email, she'd decided on the Mayan glyph for "book" on one side and "sun" on the other, and sent sketches. She'd intended it to be for your 160th birthday, but I think she'd forgive me for sending it now.
Helen felt her breath leave in a rush. She set the computer down and picked up the pendant in shaking hands. One side was more silver and one side more gold. The work was well done and the materials of quality, but what mattered most was that it was a gift from her daughter.
"Helen," Nikola prompted, his voice gentle.
Helen's fingers closed over the gift. "It seems that while we may be facing opposition from within, we still have friends." She thought for a moment. "We can't let this frighten us into inaction. Perhaps nothing will come of their plans. Perhaps something will. We have an obligation to the people here and in the other Sanctuaries to continue as normal."
"Very well. I suggest you keep your eyes a ears open when you go to Mumbai," Nikola said, addressing Henry. "Now, I have some things I need to be doing." He left, leaving Henry with Helen.
Henry's eyes were wide and he stared at her incredulously. "Do you —"
"I don't want you to spy, Henry,” Helen assured him. “Just be mindful of what you say and what you hear from others." She sighed. "I don't like conducting business in this manner, but we can't afford to ignore others who might not feel the same way."
Troubled, Henry frowned. He nodded and collected his computer. "So, uh, when do I leave for Mumbai?"
"I asked John to take you in a few hours. How long do you think it will take?"
"Two days. Priya said Ravi was able to get all the supplies we'd need, so we won't be waiting on anything."
"I don't want you to rush if you don't have to."
"Not rushing, Doc. And besides, I'd rather be here if something goes down."
"You don't honestly think Ravi —"
"No, I don't. I'm more worried about something going on here."
Helen reached over and placed her hand on his. "I understand the concern, but don't rush on our account. Mumbai needs you to upgrade their system."
Henry nodded. "I have a couple other things I need to pack." He paused by the door. "Doc? Just be careful. I have a bad feeling about this."
"I promise to be extra careful," Helen reassured.
Helen paced the length of her office, the phone held in one hand.
"Helen, I think you should consider what I am saying," Terrance Wexford said.
Helen paused to glare into the distance. "Terrance, you know we need to shuffle our resources around. I need you to open space —"
"New York needs to be able to take care of it's own, and that can't happen if we take on more people. They might strike us next."
"Even you can't touch my budget, Helen."
"I'm not —"
Helen gritted her teeth. Terrance continued to give her excuses as to why they couldn't relocate some of the abnormal collections from other Sanctuaries. Thus far new New York hadn't been directly attacked, and they had a great deal of free space. She caught her reflection in her cabinet door and forced herself to calm down. Closing her eyes, Helen let out a breath. Yelling and arguing wouldn't get anywhere with Wexford if he'd made up his mind. Helen opened her eyes and was surprised to see another figure in the reflection. Tall and dark, she thought for a moment it might have been John. She turned and looked, but no one else was in her office. The feeling of being watched didn't go away.
"Honestly, I'm beginning to wonder. You started this war, but maybe we need someone else to finish it."
Helen snapped out of her reverie. "You and I both know I did not start this." So much for staying calm, but Wexford was completely out of line. "Consider, if you will, that your Sanctuary might be next, and that your people might need the help of your neighbors."
"Is that a threat?" Wexford snarled.
"It's a reminder that we need to stand together or we'll all be destroyed."
"A bit melodramatic, Helen —"
"Look at the photos of Moscow and Tokyo, then say that. Open five units to Beijing."
"Maybe we —"
"Good." Helen hung up. She realized she'd pay for the outburst as soon as she'd done it, but sometimes it felt good to just shut that man up. Helen drew in a long breath then let it out slowly. She felt like she was being watched again, and assumed it must have been John politely leaving when it was obvious she was on the phone.
"If you're waiting for me to be done with my phone call, I am," she said to the room at large.
"Hello? John?" Helen looked around but there was no one there, and yet the feeling of eyes on her did not abate. She checked her reflection in the cabinet's doors again, but the shadow she half-expected to see was not there.
"Hello?" She called again.
"Hello?" Will asked from the doorway. "Magnus?"
"Were you waiting to speak with me?"
He shook his head. "No, I just got here. Something the matter?"
"I could have sworn...” She trailed off, and then shook her head. “Nevermind. Did you need something?"
Will studied her. Helen was aware he was evaluating her in a more professional capacity and did her best to push the feelings of unease aside. Finally, Will nodded.
"Prices just increased in our grain-based feed."
Helen allowed a small expression of annoyance cross her face before she pushed her feelings aside and tackled the problem. "Right. Let's see what we can do."
Mumbai's IT person was a Greater Naga named Priya. She had the lower body of a powerful snake, and the upper body of a woman. She also had fangs and a hood, but those were generally only shown to impolite company. She and her husband had a clutch of kids about two years old. One was currently wrapped around Henry's lower leg, giggling as Henry took careful steps down around the room.
"You sure you don't mind?" Priya asked, eyeing her wayward offspring.
"I'm cool," Henry grinned, reaching down to ruffle the kid's hair. "We should be done here in the little bit. Have you had a chance to look at the data I dropped into your inbox?"
She nodded, tucking a lock of hair behind an ear. "I did. I left some suggestions on how to improve our own security, and many more on how to increase the effectiveness of the attack."
Henry grinned. "You're the best hacker we have,"
Priya sniffed delicately. "Please, I left that life long ago."
Henry arched an eyebrow.
"Well, I do keep my hand in. It's good to be aware of what others might use against me," she mused, eyes dancing.
Henry chuckled and finished the last of the reboot with a few keystrokes. "Well, that's the last of them. In about twenty minutes you should be solid." He leaned back against the table and crossed his arms. "How're things here?"
"Sudhir? why don't you go play with Uncle Ravi."
"Yay!" the kid uncoiled himself from Henry's leg and raced down the hall.
Priya grinned wickedly after him then crossed her own arms, tapping the fingers of one hand. "It's... tense."
Helen hadn't had a chance catch up with Henry since his quick report after his return from Mumbai. Henry wasn't in his alcove so Helen went looking for him in his room, but he was either asleep or not there. The nocturnal guests and residents were awake, but for once the house was fairly quiet. Helen walked the halls, checking the rooms to see that everything was in order. She didn't want to sleep and doing a quick patrol helped calm her restless mind. It was good to see everyone resting peacefully.
The light was on in the living room on this level. Helen peered around the door to see who was there. Henry was sprawled on his stomach on the couch, one leg hanging off the edge. At least he'd learned to take his shoes off when he did that, she thought with a smile. His computer was on the table beside him.
She eased his leg back onto the sofa then pulled the folded afghan off the loveseat and draped it over him. Helen reached for the light then stopped. Instead, she sat down on the seat by the couch, watching him sleep.
It wasn't surprising he'd crashed someplace. She was a little surprised by his reaction to events, but then she probably shouldn't have been. Henry had always held deep reserves under the casual exterior. He'd stepped up and she was proud. Her only regret was the circumstances in which he was growing into the man she'd always known he could be.
"He's a good guy."
The image of Ashley watching Henry from the loveseat smiled at her then was gone. Helen gripped the arm of the chair and squeezed her eyes shut. Finally she nodded, agreeing with the vision.
Henry stirred. He looked at the blanket with surprise then found her sitting a little ways off.
"Hey, doc." Henry sat up, rubbing his eyes. "Must have crashed."
"You should get more sleep."
"This coming from you?" he joked, reaching for the computer.
Helen stopped him with a light touch on his wrist. "You should get to bed. You'll make yourself sick if you keep working like you have been."
"This place isn't going to run itself," He joked but withdrew his hand and adjusted the blanket around his shoulders.
Henry tilted his head in question, the gesture on the canine side which put a small smile on her lips.
"You've taken up a lot of the slack. I've been distracted."
"Hey, it's not like you haven't had a reason."
Helen nodded. "Still. Thank you." She cleared her throat. "How have you been holding up? It seems we've hardly spoken and for that I am truly sorry."
Henry leaned forward, resting his arms on his knees. "Up here?" he pointed to his head. "I know what she'd want me to do. So I'm doing it the best I know how. But here," he placed a hand over his chest. "I want to tear those people apart. Bust stuff up. Howl at the moon."
Henry's head dropped down and it was a long while before he spoke again.
"For?" Helen frowned.
One hand reached up and wiped at his face. "I let them grab her."
Helen was out of her seat and sitting beside him in an instant. "They were planning this for years. They had to have been. If they hadn't grabbed her then they would have tried when she was out on another mission."
"She trusted me to have her back and I let her down." His voice dropped down into a low growl.
Helen watched the muscles ripping under his skin as he clenched his hands into fists, fighting the change. She pulled him into a hug. "No." She rubbed small circles on his back as she had when he'd been much younger. "No, Henry. Nothing you did caused this." He needed reassurance and she'd been remiss in giving that to him as of late.
"I thought I did such a great job of getting her the hell out of there, but they let me." He gritted his teeth and abruptly stood, head bowed with grief and tension as the rippling started again on his whole body. He began to pace, like an animal caught in a cage. Helen wondered what she could do for him.
"Henry," she pleaded with him to see reason, "Henry, none of this is your fault. I don't blame you. I don't think Ashley would have either."
Henry continued pacing and shaking his head. "They took her and I didn't —" he cut himself off, balling his hands into fists.
"No. Nothing you did caused this Henry, you have to know that. She wouldn't want you to feel like that. Ashley wouldn't have blamed you." Helen hoped Ashley wouldn't have blamed her as well. After all, Helen was the one who'd encouraged her.
Helen stood and reached out to him. He relaxed a little and she drew him back to the sofa and wrapped the blanket around his shoulders. He broke down and Helen let him cry on her shoulder. She felt tears in her own eyes; sadness, but also shame that she hadn't been here for him. He'd needed her and she'd been wrapped in her own grief. That too was something she couldn't hold on to forever. She had to let the mistake go and move forward.
At length, Henry sniffed and wiped his eyes, nodding. He rested his arms on his knees again and stared at the far wall. Helen put a hand on his shoulder to let him know she was there for him. He chuckled bitterly and seemed to be gathering himself up for something. He shook his head and set his jaw.
"Before we left, I'd decided something," he eventually said. "I was done being a coward and I'd finally worked up the nerve to do it. We were going to go on the mission, come back with what we'd gone for and everyone would have been happy and I wouldn't have looked so much like a dork."
Henry breathed in then let it out slowly. "I was gonna ask her if she wanted to go for coffee or something."
"Oh," Helen breathed, hugging him to her. "Oh, Henry." She was fairly certain that Ashley would have been surprised, but would have said yes. Helen had been well aware of the teenage crush that had once lurked under her daughter's friendship with Henry. As an adult, she'd certainly loved him as a dear friend. The strongest romances often grew out of such friendships. Helen certainly would have approved; Henry was a good man. More, he would have been good for Ashley.
"I just," Henry shook his head. "She's gone."
Helen brushed back his hair. Her heart's fervent belief was that her daughter was not dead, but she had tried everything. Ashley wouldn't have wanted her to spent the rest of her life in a search with an uncertain end when there were so many people who needed her now. Ashley wouldn't have wanted that endless quest for her best friend, either.
"Yes," she murmured, soothing him with gentle touches. She felt the sting of tears at her eyes, but she willed them not to fall. "She's gone."
Henry shuddered with pent up emotion, eyes fixed on the floor. After a good ten minutes of silence, the tension in his shoulders eased gradually in acceptance, shedding the burden he'd been keeping in the back of his mind.
"I haven't wanted to say it out loud, you know?" he finally spoke into the silence. "Saying it makes it more real. Didn't for a week because I thought, if I didn't maybe something would happen. She'd turn up." He wiped his nose. "Crazy as life here is, it's not a comic book or a scifi movie."
She squeezed his shoulders. "No. It's not."
He nodded and wiped his eyes again then looked away. "Yeah. Makes working with Kate kinda hard. I think they'd have had a fistfight and then gone out for a beer. I had this crazy dream the other night." He smiled, shaking his head. "Kate was the party rogue, Ash was the warrior, Will was the priest. I got to be the spell caster."
Helen laughed, ignoring the tight feeling in her chest. "How is she working out? You and Will have probably spent the most time with her thus far."
Henry shrugged. "Sometimes she's easier to deal with than other times. She knows what she's doing on a hunt. I, uh, looked her up."
"Did you find anything unusual?"
"No," he shook his head. "I would have brought it up if I had. She hasn't lied about the name at least. She's had at least one history wipe. Probably a couple. Not real surprising, considering her line of work. She's probably got the cash to pay for a decent but not complete job." Henry rubbed his hands together, looking at the far wall as he recalled the details he'd found.
"She started this line of work between six and seven years ago. With the wipes it's hard to say so she might have been around a little longer. She's been moving black market goods mostly, trending into live abnormal stuff in the last year and a half or so. Minor player, minor reputation. Solid if you can pay for it. Doesn't ask questions."
"Exactly the sort of person the Cabal would hire to do their dirty work if they didn't want to be noticed." Helen's eyes narrowed. She did not exactly agree with Kate's previous line of work, but she disliked the Cabal's actions more so. Kate had been a con-artist and thief, but she wasn't a contract killer.
Henry nodded. "If you want my opinion? I think she got in over her head on that one."
Helen nodded, agreeing. "Anything on her background? Family? Friends? Where she came from?"
Henry shook his head. "Minimal. She's either from Mumbai or Chicago. Probably lived both places. She operated in Los Angeles for a few months, then showed up in Vancouver, but since she's small fish, it's actually easier to remove traces."
"You mentioned she could pay for that service?"
Henry nodded. "Decent domestic funds. She's got stuff in the Caymans but I couldn't tell you how much without some really invasive hacking. She'd still be a smaller account though. If she moves it out of there, I don't know where it goes."
Helen nodded. She suspected now that at least some of those funds, perhaps all of them, were sent to family. "Do you trust her?"
Henry winced and rubbed the back of his head. "Maybe? She's dead if she leaves, but I think she really likes the stuff she's been doing here – the helping I mean. Biggie said Kate spent most of the afternoon corralling the new kids after you brought 'em in from the docs. He says she has 'em all watching Operation Paranomral and playing fetch with Ralphie for a little bit in the afternoons."
Helen suppressed an eyeroll on that little tidbit, but she supposed if no one had been hurt, it was just as well the children had been distracted by the steno. Then again, the steno was looking fine and fit, so perhaps the exercise and socialization was good for him. "I hear a ‘but‘ coming?"
He nodded. "But she's been in the shady side for a really long time. I know some guys who went white hat after being hackers for years, and it's a tough habit to break." He made a little gesture. "Priya, for one. It took a few years and a clutch of kids to get her to really stop."
Helen chuckled. "How are they?"
"The little boy likes climbing over everyone and everything. The one girl had her nose in a book the whole time I was there and the other was a bit shy at first, but then she heard us speaking English and wanted to practice. Couldn't get her to stop talking after that."
Helen laughed. "It's good to know that despite everything there are still families growing and we can shield the children from some of this ugliness." She hugged Henry's shoulder. " As for Kate, I'm hopeful things will work out."
"We've had so much go wrong, something has to go right."
Helen tut-tutted his cynicism. "She has you and Will as good examples to follow. Now, you should get some rest."
"You want to hear about Mumbai? Like, what the going rumors are?"
"I think it can wait until the morning. If it had been something vital, I'm sure you would have found me."
Henry laughed, nodding. "Yeah.They're scared down there too, but no one said anything to my face. Some ruffled feathers, but nothing smelled really wrong."
"I trust your judgement. Now go to bed."
"I think I'd like to stay up for awhile. Get some things done. Finish up my analysis of their security, poke at the virus program some more."
"Henry, I think it'd be best if you slept. I don't want you working yourself to exhaustion." She saw him hesitate so she added, "Please. For me?"
He relented, nodding. "Guess I should listen to the doctor, huh?"
She smiled, hesitated, then kissed his forehead. "The programs will be here in the morning. Good night Henry."
Fall turned to winter. Heavy snow fell on the northwest. Outside Magnus' window, the gardens were covered in a blanket of white. The Corvids weren't the only refugees to seek shelter from the storm. Many of the newer additions were from warmer climates and few could go outside in the northwestern winter. Normally some of the migratory abnormals would have already left to winter south, but that was no longer an option. With so many here, Helen was feeling a little claustrophobic in her own home. The chaos of coordinating the care of so many abnormals was further complicated by more "routine" operations.
The Old City Sanctuary still had to react to the appearance of abnormals in their sector. If they didn't handle it quickly, the Cabal would, and often did, swoop in. There had been a brief, and in hindsight amusing, meeting with a "super-hero". They'd managed to get the abnormal away from the man before the Cabal could. Helen was aware that Kate's brother had come by, but she'd been too focused on dealing with the newly expanded collection at the time. Pressure had lessened in the city as of late and word was a major crime boss had disappeared. Helen didn't want to know the details. The man had been in bed with the Cabal according to Will.
While things were quiet in her immediate area, the other Sanctuaries were facing increasing pressure from local authorities, creditors and suppliers. As winter broke in Old City, Helen looked out at the prospect of spring, but the hope she usually felt during this time of year was depressingly absent.
Helen's head snapped up. She'd been dozing. She checked the time and saw it had only been an hour. "Kate?"
"Boss! Mexico City just got hit," Kate said, crossing the room at a trot. She turned Helen's keyboard and monitor to the side so she could type then turned it back so Helen could see. "We just saw this downstairs."
The video feed showed a local Mexico city newscast. The reporter in the helicopter was surveying a blazing building. A gout of flame shot into the sky and illuminated the surrounding area. Helen recognized the Mexico City Sanctuary at the heart of the flames.
"We're trying to find out. Henry's working his mojo on the networks. Will called some folks at the border and Biggie is trying to grab a hold of Druitt. Can't find Tesla."
Helen nodded as she and Kate ran back to the main lab.
"Doc!" Henry looked up from his computer. The live footage from two stations was now being fed to the monitors.
"Have we been able to speak with anyone?" Helen asked
"Not from Mexico City. Javier Martinez was in Cabo for a photoshoot and wants to know what he can do to help. He says his studio space in San Diego is open to us if we need to move people around."
Helen nodded. "Thank him. Do we know what happened?"
"The press is currently speculating that it's gang violence," Nikola said, joining them. He picked up the remote and another monitor showed CNN reporting on the fires. "I spoke with some contacts of mine." The hooded look he gave Helen made her insides twist. She'd known this was no ordinary fire, no accident of gang violence.
"We need to make contact and get whomever we can out of there."
"I might know some people," Kate offered, dark eyes fixed on the screens. "Folks who are still returning my calls, but they might not want to get involved."
"Do you trust them?"
Kate shrugged a shoulder. "For a price. They don't sell to higher bidders though."
"I've already asked my contacts in the area to be available," Nikola added.
One of the monitors flashed over to a Skype video-conference. The craggy face of the Mexico City Head of House, Lucás Amadeo, was lit by the glow of the computer he was using.
"Helen. This connection isn't exactly the best."
"I understand. How can we help?"
"Many of my people have fled for the border north, a few have gone south. I was able to load some of our collection onto a shipping container and send it north by sea. Some of my people took others to the airport. We think one truck go through. The other--" he broke off, coughing.
Helen wouldn't have been surprised if it was smoke inhalation.
"Those who could, fled into the city. We have no idea if they made it or not." He stopped to cough again. "We didn't have much time. The riots started and within the hour they were at our gates. Their teleporter was there. He took a few of us before Ignacio hit him with the EM pulse gun. He went down, but some men in riot gear grabbed him before we could. They were not with the police." He broke off again, coughing.
There was a commotion in the background and he looked off into the distance.
"Lucás," Helen said, "We'll help you."
"They bought those gangs, Helen. Even now we are being hunted." Lucás’ expression was grim even through the grainy picture.
"Doc! I got Rio on the line. She's going to send a cargo plane to Toluca."
"Lucás, Maria is sending a plane to Toluca. We'll head south and help your people cross the border in San Diego and meet your shipping crate at the port."
He coughed again, nodding. The commotion was even louder. "We must go. Helen," he coughed again. "Helen, this is bad. Most of my House was caught in the fire."
"Head to Toluca. We'll work our contacts in the area and get whomever we can out of the area."
He nodded and the connection went black. Helen had half a second before Henry told her that Maria was waiting and calls were coming in from the other Sanctuaries.
"Has anyone else been attacked?"
"That's a mercy at least," Helen muttered to herself. She waved for Henry to connect her and the center monitor switched to the feed from Rio.
Maria González was a hard woman. At first glance she appeared to be statuesque Latina beauty in her mid to late thirties, but her luminous yellow eyes indicated her abnormal heritage. She was eighty years old, still young for her species of HAP – the werejaguars. Maria's dark hair was pulled back to the nape of her neck and her brows were drawn in a frown. Her lips had compressed into a thin line, but the severe expression was hardly something unusual for her
"Maria. Thank you for sending the plane."
She nodded her head slightly. "I expect you'll have problems with the border-crossing. I suggest you avoid Nogales and the Calexico-Mexicali crossings."
"What would you suggest? San Diego?"
She nodded once. "Do you think this is a prelude to a larger attack?"
"We haven't heard anything from anyone else thus far. They seem to have bought some of the local gangs in Mexico City."
"And some of the police, no doubt," Maria growled. In others it might have been an expression or a turn of phrase, but with Maria, it was very literal. "Mexico was weakened by the price increases. We have begun to see the same thing here, as well as in Cairo, Jakarta, and Asunción."
Helen nodded. Any of them could be next, she thought.
"Lives are being lost."
"I have not been inactive."
Maria waved a hand in a negative gesture, cutting Helen off. "No. But we are not gaining ground and there is no relief."
Helen looked up as Kate trotted over.
"Hank says some of the other heads are online. He's and Will are playing secretary. You want to hold a conference?"
Helen set her jaw, and nodded. "Perhaps we should discuss what we can do for one another," she said, addressing Maria.
Maria nodded, eyes flicking to one side and narrowing at something off-camera.
The monitors changed so that only one local feed continued to show the blaze in Mexico City. The others showed the other Heads of House who'd contacted her: Asunción in Paraguay, Sydney in Australia, New York City, Mumbai and New Delhi both in India, London in the UK, Jakarta Indonesia, Berlin in Germany and Bejing in China. Helen met the eyes of each head or acting head, and nodded a greeting. There were a few Houses missing; some such as Tokyo and Moscow were still gathering themselves together, but she wondered at the others. Where were Oslo, Lagos, Lima, Christchurch, and Grozny? Helen motioned to Kate and quietly asked her to have Henry make contact.
"Well, this is a fine mess, Helen," Terrance Wexford began.
Pili scowled at him, but remained silent.
"Has anyone heard from Norway? New Zealand?" Helen asked, ignoring Terrance for the moment.
The Sydney head nodded. "Christchurch contacted me. They're dealing with vandalism, but their relationship with the local police is very strong."
Helen nodded thanks. "The others?"
"We've been trying to contact Grozny," Berlin spoke up. "Nothing yet."
"I have not heard from Nigeria," Pili added. "My IT officer is attempting to make contact but has been unsuccessful. We have not, however, seen anything on the news channels which might indicate they have been attacked."
"We should use our government contacts," Terrance spoke up. "Before we find we cannot use them," Terrance spoke up.
Helen wasn't the only Head to protest that suggestion, but neither was it unanimous. "I believe that would be ill advised. This is our matter to deal with. I don't want collateral damage--"
"There is already collateral damage, Helen. We don't have the resources-"
"If we run to our governments for help, what does that say?" Declan asked him. "It says we can't handle problems we told them we could handle."
"It places us in a position beholden to them," Berlin agreed.
"We already are." Sydney spoke up.
"No need to remind them," Pili added in a gentle tone. "At the moment they don't claim to understand our science and I doubt they want to assume those responsibilities. However, guns and weapons they understand."
Terrance glared at her, looking perhaps a little betrayed, but he subsided.
Helen inclined her head to Pili, who was the Cairo head. "Well said." She looked at everyone in turn. "I doubt we'd like additional government oversight after this crisis has been averted. That isn't even touching the possibility that the Cabal has infiltrated those same governments. We could be opening ourselves to further attack." She paused to let that sink in. "The best course is to help one another and exercise what contacts we have without going for the extreme options."
"Will you talk of peace then?" Wexford questioned, voice pitched over the commotion the other heads were making.
Silence fell for a moment before the arguments and discussion started again.
Wexford called out for silence before Helen could. "We are getting nowhere with them. Perhaps we could talk?"
"They haven't wished to speak before," Berlin reminded him.
"And they've started a fresh round of assaults," Maria added, mildly.
Wexford's eyes snapped over to her.
She shrugged a shoulder. "They are on the offensive. Why would they talk?"
"It could take their momentum," Jakarta said in support of the idea. "Give us a moment to breathe if nothing else. If they think we're so wounded as to broach the topic of peace talks, they might allow us to gain a better deal."
"If we are so weak as to ask them to the table," Maria said, "We are as weak as they will think we are." She bared white teeth at him in a predator's smile of challenge. All four of her canines were pointed and very white.
"There can be no peace," Helen said, forcefully. She didn't raise her voice but the discussion subsided. "When this began, the leader of the Cabal offered what she considered peace, and that was giving everything over in exchange for returning Ashley.” Helen was proud of herself that her voice didn’t crack over speaking her daughter’s name out loud. “My house. Your Houses. You know this." She looked Wexford in the eye until he looked away. "I cannot do that. Too many lives depend on us and we have seen what they do."
"Helen we're all sorry about what happened to--"
"It isn't just what they did to my daughter," Helen cut Jakarta off. "They destroyed the lives of six other people. Six other humans who were abnomal in that they had no abnormalities, and that's just the start. They have captured, manipulated, and enslaved many. You've all been sent the reports in the last year. At best we're tools to be used and discarded. At worst we're threats to be eliminated. There is no peace possible that does not end in the death of us and everything we stand for."
Silence followed Helen's speech. Wexford shifted uncomfortably.
"Doc?" Henry's gentle voice broke the silence.
He eyed the monitors then gulped. "Lima's gone."
To Be Continued...
Helen blinked. "Gone? Henry--"
He shook his head. "Hillaria, I'll patch you in." He tapped at his computer and a video feed was shared with the rest of the heads.
The face of a women in her twenties with entirely black eyes and a tear-stained face filled the image.
"Dr. Magnus," she said, voice slightly unsteady, "they're gone."
Hillaria sniffed. "I was out with my brother and some friends. They don't mind that we're different. We were dancing in the clubs and having a good time. Carlos and I made sure everyone was home and we went back to his apartment, but our friend Marcos at the Sanctuary had left him a message. Carlos tried his cell but he didn't pick up. We tried the Sanctuary's main line and no-one picked up." She took a moment to compose herself. "Carlos and I went to see in person, but no one was there. He made me wait at the cafe I'm at now but they took him. Men in black grabbed him and stuffed him in a van. They didn't see me. The cafe is going to close soon and I don't want to go out there."
Helen's mind worked furiously. If only John were – Nikola jogged in, John close at his heels. Helen beckoned him over.
"Hillaria, this is John. He and Will, will come to get you. We need to know where you are."
The girl half-laughed, half-sobbed and nodded, quickly giving the street address where she was located. John and Will left and a run. Hillaria was told the cafe was closing and she gave Helen one last tortured look before closing the laptop.
"We need to send teams to check the ones we couldn't reach," Declan spoke up. "Pili I can support you if you need additional people to check out Nigeria. Helen, I'll send a team to Oslo."
"Don't leave yourself vulnerable," Helen told him. He nodded. Helen turned to Maria. "I can help by sending a team to Lima."
"I will," the Asunción head spoke up. "You and Rio will be busy with Mexico City. We'll investigate into Lima and take- And take anyone we find. If you need more space for Mexico, we will make room."
Helen nodded. The other heads were discussing the matter and acting to help one another. Helen would not have wished for the circumstances ever, but the unintended results were hopeful. Perhaps they would make it out alive; they just needed to work together.
John and Will soon returned with a still-distraught Hillaria. Seeing even one person safe, seemed to life the moods of most of the heads. One by one, the House Heads signed off to attend to their tasks. Helen had Kate settle the girl into a room with some clothing from storage then let out a long breath.
"Did you see anything, John?" She asked, not looking up.
"William and I were very fast. There were some footsteps in the dark, but we took the girl as soon as we were around the corner."
John inclined his head. He paused then added, "I shall be sure to keep my phone charged," he offered.
Helen nodded thanks. "Are you familiar with San Diego?"
They didn't have trouble at the border at San Diego, but the shipping crate incurred a hefty fine. Henry ultimately found out it was because of Cabal involvement, which didn't surprise anyone.
Oslo had been entirely cut off from the network, but quick thinking and a good relationship with the local law enforcement had saved them. Still, they had number of casualties and one fatality -- a fragile specimen of local fish that hadn't survived the power loss. Christchurch had weathered the storm the best, with some graffiti on their front gates and a sleepless night.
Lagos, Lima and Grozny were gone.
John had ventured in with Kate to check out Lima. The front door had been open. There were signs of struggles and bullet holes in the walls, even a few splashes of blood, though not many. The residents and staff were gone. Helen suspected gas had been used after the initial entry. The collection had been removed except for a giant lake lungfish, which had been found belly up in its tank. The server room had been burned. From Kate's pictures, Henry had been able to determine that they'd done it before the Cabal could get in. Lima hadn't yet had the security upgrades and access through a Sanctuary would have been catastrophic.
Lagos had been quietly burned to the ground. Enough money had changed hands with the local government that Pili had found herself rudely rebuffed. The pictures taken with the long-rage lens showed still smoking ruins and caution tape around the perimeter. A sign proclaimed that a controlled demolition had taken place and the land was owned by the local government.
Grozny had suffered much the same fate as Lima, but without any survivors.
These had been the smallest of the Sanctuaries, but their losses hurt. If they couldn't protect themselves, if Helen couldn't protect them, then what hope did they have?
That so many had been able to escape Mexico City was a blessing, but Jakarta's snide comments had cut deeply. Rio had nodded in agreement, and Berlin had looked thoughtful.
Mexico's staff, residents and remaining collection were spread between the other New World Sanctuaries - even New York.
The sun had broken through the clouds and the air was moist with spring rain. It was still too chilly to go outside without a coat, but Helen needed a moment.
The gardens had been cleared by some of the refugees, either looking to be useful or because they were suffering cabin fever. The intermittently kept vegetable garden was being prepared for the oncoming spring.
One such refugee had perched on a rock, his rake set to one side. He was playing a small flute or recorder of some kind. The thin sound wavered in the air. Others worked and spoke with one another in the garden, happy to be outside after a winter's confinement.
Helen stopped on the path and watched, pulling her coat closer. These happy sounds were what she was fighting for- the liquid melody of the woodwind evoked rain falling in sheets on the ground, and the wind winding through new buds on the trees. Or perhaps stress and too many sleepless nights were turning her into a poor poet.
The song ended and Helen smiled at the musician. He was a dark-skinned, weathered man with long hair pulled into a simple tail. He had a fluffy beard. It wasn't broad or particularly long or large, but it drifted rather like feathers. He had long drooping eyebrows that also looked feathery and now that she studied his hair, it too looked feathered. They were glossy, light interference creating a dark rainbow. Deep lines formed at the corners of his eyes as he smiled at her.
She inclined her head. "Your playing was lovely."
He shrugged a shoulder. "We all do what we can. You for instance. You do quite a bit," he said, rising to his feet and grasping the rake at his side. He leaned on it and regarded her steadily.
"Well," she shrugged a shoulder. "I like to think I'm helping." She drew in a breath and let it out. "It's been a long winter."
"Longer for some than others. You've been at this a long time."
"My life's work."
"You haven't had problems before."
Helen laughed. "Oh, I've had plenty. Starting was difficult. Some hard times during the wars."
"And you kept trying."
"Of course," Helen said, smiling.
"Have you ever thought about giving up?"
She eyed him askance. "A few times," she admitted.
"Then what do you do it for?"
"Too many people rely on me."
"You do it for others."
"Yes. There are the direct benefits," she gestured with one hand at the handful of people in the garden. "There are also benefits for everyone. There are still too many discoveries to be found for me to quit now." She winked at the end. This conversation was a little bit frank for someone she couldn't remember the name of, so Helen smiled and took her leave.
"Why you?" he asked after her.
Helen stopped and turned. The man was gone. The small group in the gardens was still chatting, but they looked up as she turned abruptly. Helen looked around but saw no sign of the abnormal man.
"Helen?" he old friend asked after her, startling her. "Are you feeling well?"
"Fine," she waved him off. "Just needed some air. It's good to be out of the house, isn't it?"
Helen didn't see the abnormal man after that except in the distance or out of the corners of her eyes. Whenever she'd approach or turn to speak with him again, he was suddenly gone. After a week of looking, she asked Will to pull up data on who he might be. Such research would be good for him.
Will came back scratching his head, because there were no records of an abnormal like that. Helen sent him back looking for abnormals who might have invisibility or shape shifting powers among the refugees. Again, Will returned with nothing.
Helen dropped it after that. The Cabal had made another run against London while Declan was out in the field, then Mumbai and New Delhi in short order. They'd been planning to re-establish Tokyo but those plans were put on hold when it was discovered that the property surrounding them had been bought by the Cabal.
Helen stared at the box of items on her bed. There were golden hairs on the brush amid the other artifacts she'd packed away. Helen put the lid back then walked to her vanity. She opened her jewelry box and withdrew a small pendant. A lock of pale hair had been sealed inside the glass locket. Helen drew her finger over the lock and remembered with fondness how fine it had been when Ashley had been born.
Reaching over she picked up the photograph of Ashley, taken the Christmas before Will had joined their house. She was smiling and relaxed as she sat on the floor amid the wrapping paper. Helen remembered it had been a happy time.
"Hello, dear heart." She smiled at the picture. "I'm sure we look like a mess here. There are still so many things to do, but we're coping. Henry's been working like a lion, you know. I'm proud of him. Will's been my rock, but I know he's worried about us all. The new girl...I think you would have liked Kate." Helen closed her eyes and let out a breath. "It's hard to work with her because of that. She's not a replacement by any stretch of the imagination, but I am grateful for the help." Helen bit her lip. "A part of me thinks I shouldn't do this, talk to you. That I should cut all ties as I move forward, as if you never existed." She sighed. "You did though."
Ashley had been the most amazing woman. Helen had been so proud of her, and she still was. She'd fought and won against the monstrosity they'd created within her. If Ashley could be that strong, so could Helen.
"It makes me feel better to tell you things occasionally, even if you can't hear me where you are. Just talking helps me set my mind in order. It makes it easier to get up in the morning and I can do what needs to be done, so please bear with me."
She could practically hear Ashley laughing, and it made her smile at the photograph. She wasn't sure her daughter would have needed this to cope with loss. Ashley had always been so strong, had handled it better than Helen had, but she'd had a soft, gentle side as well. Helen had treasured that as well as her impulsiveness and determination. How could she deny such a wonderful person had existed?
Letting go didn't mean the end of love, even if it felt that way sometimes. Eventually, Helen knew, it wouldn't hurt this badly.
"I'm hearing things, seeing things." She bowed her head, the weight of emotion crushing in that instant. "I'm afraid what that means, dear heart. I'm afraid the other Heads will use it to get rid of me. They're questioning some of my decisions even if they've had favorable results. I'm afraid they'd give us to the Cabal if I wasn't around to stop them. Giving in would be easier, but it wouldn't be right."
The vise around her heart eased a little with the admissions. Helen was certain Ashley would have risen like a warrior, furious on her mother's behalf, and that brought the smile back. In some ways it had terrified Helen, had reminded her a bit of John’s rages, but she couldn't have caged her, couldn't have clipped those wings. Not any more than she had, she supposed. And oh, Ashley had flown.
Helen looked at the clock. She had a schedule to keep and had wallowed enough. She touched the silver frame around the photo. "I love you, but I have to go back to work." She put the locket back into her jewelry box and closed the lid.
Helen checked herself in the mirror for any running makeup. This time there wasn't any. She smiled at the photo and rose, feeling calmer, more centered and focused. She knew she'd eventually grow out of private conversations like these as time eased the pain, but for now, it helped.
Henry slammed the broken surveillance camera down on the table. The casing snapped off and skidded across the table. The camera was already broken so Henry didn't care all that much.
"Problem, Heinrich?" Nikola Tesla asked without turning around from the workbench.
Henry scowled at his back. The Doc had given him a whole lab to play with, why was he here?
"Need something?" Henry asked.
"Two cabinets, a proper workbench, and a nice red," Tesla said. "Your things are there." He made a dismissive gesture toward some neatly stacked boxes in the corner, boxes that had not been there that morning. Boxes that appeared to contain some of the tools and projects that had been on that workbench.
"Uh... What did you do to my workbench?"
Tesla set down the tool he'd been using and plucked a clean kerchief from a pocket. He carefully wiped his long fingers before neatly tucking the cloth away. "We're lab-mates."
"Say what now?"
Tesla closed his eyes and sighed. "Helen needed the space I was using. Apparently there is a migratory species of abnormal who evaded the Cabal but couldn't go further than here. They require a small, sunless room to sleep in for most of the day. My lab space fit those requirements and would only displace myself and some of your tools, rather than a total upheaval of living arrangements." He didn't look particularly pleased with the decision.
"Okay," Henry said, drawing the word out. "So is this for a day? A week?"
Tesla scowled. "Until we defeat the Cabal, or they drag us all howling and screaming to our deaths."
"Great." Henry turned to his computer with a sigh and checked some programs he was running.
"North-East camera was taken out."
"Taken out?" Tesla observed the ruined piece, chin in hand. "This almost looks... Dissolved."
"As far as I can tell, they used acid-filled paintballs."
Tesla arched a brow.
"Dude I could not make that up."
"You just wish you'd thought of it first."
Henry scowled at him. "Anyway they're taking pot-shots at our cameras and even some of the power lines. Like we'd have something that important exposed," he scoffed. "The acid chewed through the housing and got into the circuitry. I've got a replacement out there already, but we're gonna need better protection for our equipment."
"Indeed. I'll see if I can't find some residue to analyze."
Henry nodded and got to work as well. It became apparent quickly that sharing the lab was going to be an adjustment. After the fifth time he nearly collided with Tesla, Henry growled and threw up his hands, walking well away from the vampire.
"This is insane!"
"I can't say I like it much either," Tesla remarked, dryly.
"How much longer can this go on?" Henry questioned rhetorically. He caught Tesla's look. "What? What do you know?"
Tesla set the equipment down and fixed Henry with a very serious look. "I give us a year at the outset."
Henry rocked back on his heels. "Wh-What?"
"Unless something changes dramatically, they'll have us in a year."
"Old City. We'll be able to hold out the longest."
Henry's jaw worked. What did you say to something like that? Tesla resumed his study of the damaged security camera.
"Why haven't you skipped town then?" It probably wasn't the most charitable answer, but faced with something like that, why the heck was Tesla staying in town? Why hadn't he pulled another disappearing act?
Tesla set his tools down once more and seemed to consider his response. That was almost as scary as Tesla's prediction. Henry hadn't known the vampire to be serious or give up an opportunity to snark at him – or anyone else, for that matter.
Finally Tesla answered with a quote. "First they came for the communists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist." He shrugged a shoulder and straightened. "I've already run to the last place on Earth they'll take, and you and I both know we're not invulnerable. If I want to survive this, and believe me, Heinrich, I do, then I have to make my stand from here."
He looked into the distance, wearing a small sneer. "I wish I could get out there again."
"What, like a raid?"
He nodded. "John and I were able to make some headway before they got their feet back and started this damned war of attrition."
"Druitt's kinda needed."
"He's wasted playing messenger boy." Tesla's voice turned dry. "He's much better at, ah, execution of details."
Henry scowled back. "Dude. Two guys, even if it’s you two, can't take on all of the Cabal. Not like this at least. If they were weak or unsteady, maybe."
Tesla arched a brow. "You have suggestions?"
Henry nodded. "Kill their network. Like we were plotting before."
"Hmm," Tesla mused. "Yes. We'd have to go on the offensive, but we've all got our hands full," he gestured to the Sanctuary at large. "If we had some breathing room..."
"Right. It'd be a different story. Maybe that's what we need to do, though. Go on the offensive."
Tesla smirked. "So the werewolf does have teeth."
Henry's smile was feral. "I owe them." Not just for what they did to Ashley, but for the torture they’d inflicted on him too.
Tesla snorted a laugh and gave him a little salute. "So what would you suggest?"
Henry shrugged and went back to his bench to continue his project. Tesla was mocking him a little, which was actually a bit more reassuring than the total sincerity. "Not real sure. I can't believe that the recon you and Druitt did is still accurate, but that's how I'd go. Get into their network. Kill their ability to communicate. If I could swing it, I'd nuke their finances, but that's way harder to do. Get the dirt on who they own and who they owe and try to out maneuver them that way. I think we might have the upper hand in political capital if we can take out their ability to bribe. First we'd have to kill their communication to do anything, though. Big organization like that? Screwing up the chain of command can make everything grind to a halt."
"You know," Tesla mused, "That'd be how I'd take us out. Not because of the chain of command, but because the network couldn't warn one another what was coming."
That didn't sit well will Henry at all. "Yeah," he agreed. "Which is why I've been making us so tight and why I was able to spot that leak."
They worked for another hour or so in near silence, finally beginning to learn to work around the other person. It was by no means perfect, but they'd adapt. They had to adapt.
"Still," Tesla said, breaking the silence. "Corporate espionage is good and all, but I'd feel better knowing they were... Personally incapacitated." He looked up at Henry.
Henry's jaw clenched. He didn't say anything, but, God help him, part of him agreed.
Helen shivered though it was now too warm to blame the weather. She'd taken a risk, a large one, but it had paid off. Well, she hoped.
There was enough evidence in the Cabal attacks that Helen had come to the terrifying conclusion that there was a leak in her network. Henry and his hacker friend in India had been the ones to bring the data to her. Helen had quietly accepted it and considered her options. What made this difficult was that the leak was one of the telepaths in the Triad, the body used as a neutral fact-finding organization within the network.
She'd considered the type of sting operation she could commit, and the one she thought of first, while possessing a high likelihood of success, would do more harm than good with the precarious state she enjoyed with the other Heads. Wexford's agitation was gaining ground in some Houses, and he'd love an excuse to get her removed. No, she couldn't implicate herself and have the heads call for a Triad.
Kate was the next logical choice since she was still a newer member, but Helen doubted Kate would agree to some of the more risky parts of the plan. In any case, Helen didn't wish to damage the fragile relationships and trust she was building here in Old City.
She couldn't fake her death. That would destabilize things even worse in the interim and when she returned, she'd earn no friends.
No, she'd have to tread carefully.
In the end things had worked out and Emma had taken the bait: information relating to the "Big Bertha" project, revealing herself as the leak. Nikola and John had been pleased to get some licks in at the fight. Emma had been killed by the Cabal before they withdrew.
It was a victory for the Network, but the cost was high in terms of peace of mind.
Now Helen had to worry how they'd react when they discovered that Big Bertha was still alive and well, on top of everything else.
Helen watched the dawn break over the skyline of the city. Had the Cabal been fooled, or would they still look?
Helen felt eyes on her back. There was the dark shape, like a figure made out of smoke, out of the corner of her eye. She turned, expecting for it to disappear, but the man with the long feathery eyebrows and fluffy feather beard was there.
He regarded her for a long moment. Helen wondered what he wanted, who he was. She hoped that if he'd meant her harm it would have happened again.
"That was a bit of excitement. They say the telepath was killed."
Helen nodded. "A regrettable loss."
"She was directly feeding information to your enemies."
Helen grimaced and resumed looking at the dawn. At length, she said, "Yes. I regret she died. I regret she turned on us. I regret the chaos we had to incur to unmask her."
The man grunted and stood beside her at the window.
"What frightens you the most about the Cabal?"
She cocked her head inquiringly. "Who said I was frightened?"
He eyed her, expression wry. "Only a fool wouldn't be afraid of a powerful enemy, and you don't look like a fool to me." He peered at her. "Eyes could be going. Getting up in years."
Helen's lips thinned into a line as she considered the question. "Many things. They don't preserve except as it benefits them. There are many rare species in the world and I fear there could be fewer if the Cabal isn’t stopped. There are matters of science and discovery that could be lost." Helen sighed. "And there are many small cultures that could be destroyed as well. Either of those would be a terrible loss to everyone. There's so much more to discover. I mourn that loss as much as the personal ones."
The man made a murmur of agreement. "So the great Helen Magnus doesn't know everything about the world then."
"Not yet at least," Helen said, trying for humor. She wasn't sure who or what this abnormal was, but if it could come and go as it pleased, the smart thing would be to make friends. Aside from that, she was curious.
"Who are you?"
The man shrugged a shoulder. "No one special. That business with the powerful abnormal..."
Helen eyed him sharply. The details of the operation were not well known.
He smirked at her. "The Helen Magnus I've seen wouldn't kill outright."
"It was the right thing to do."
He looked at her, really looked at her, and Helen wondered if he was a telepath as well. Did he know?
"What then, would the hypothetical reasons be for keeping such a creature alive?"
"The same ones that were given before the decision was made to euthanize her. We don't know enough about hyperspecies abnormals. Killing her could have had far-reaching consequences we couldn't predict. It would be wrong to kill something just because we didn't understand it."
He studied her for a moment then turned back to look out over the water. Helen resumed her watch as well.
"It's a good thing killing her didn't seem to have any ill effects, then," he said.
"Quite," Helen agreed.
"Magnus?" Will called from the doorway.
Helen turned, already knowing that the man would be gone. "Will?"
Will looked around suspiciously. "Ravi is on the line."
Helen nodded and walked to her desk. "Something else?" she asked when Will didn't immediately disappear.
"Was Druitt in here?"
Helen shook her head. "Just thinking aloud."
He watched her for several second then nodded. "Right. Well I'll be downstairs doing rounds. Oh! Biggie says Moscow has heard from some trustworthy contractors finally."
"They're going to cost twice as much."
Helen's lips pressed into a thin line and she nodded once. Will gave her a sympathetic look and Helen sat down at her computer.
Spring blossomed into Summer, and while they now had full use of the gardens, that only partially alleviated the problem. Old City Sanctuary was steadily becoming over-crowded. It wasn't a constant rush of new residents, or a steady trickle. They came in groups, a few at a time. With each group, Helen opened her doors and took them in for shelter and safety. It took her a few months to realize what was happening. She felt ashamed it had taken so long to realize what the Cabal was doing. They were flushing their prey out of hiding.
Old City wasn't the only Sanctuary with the problem, as others were facing the very same difficulties. Moscow had managed to re-open on a smaller scale. It was a small victory, but a victory nonetheless. Helen was thankful for it. There had been a few births with the spring as well. Of course that meant more mouths to feed and yet another life for her to protect, but those additions, those small victories, did the most to keep hope burning in her heart.
They needed room to breathe, room to grow. She'd disliked giving the order, but it had been necessary. Small counterstrikes had been conducted. Declan found a small budget to outfit a volunteer team as a security force, but they were trusted, part-time, ex-military friends who now worked on the edges of abnormal society. They moved where they could, but time and money limited their effectiveness.
The most successful force had been John and Nikola. Helen still used them sparingly, though she knew they both wished to rain holy hell upon their enemies. She'd explained her reasoning to them, her fear. They could be taken and turned. If the Cabal knew to expect them, they'd lay a trap, just as they'd done for Henry and Ashley. Aside from the personal loss, it was too much of a risk to let the men have their leave to do as they wished. They'd agreed, if reluctantly. Nikola had attempted to insert computer viruses into their infrastructure, but the blitzkrieg nature of their attacks hadn't allowed for much, and little time could be devoted to offensive programming when they were being constantly attacked and probed in kind.
July came. Henry groused playfully about missing Comic-Con, but Helen had also seen the fear in his eyes. With Ashley's birthday so close, she knew they were thinking the same thing: he could be taken again too. Helen took a small amount of comfort in knowing that Henry, her old friend, and she would be together on that day.
Will found Magnus on top of the tower, one foot on the merlon and one on the roof, looking over the river and the city on the other side. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and stood next to her.
"I realize I am being childish standing around up here when I have work to do. I will return shortly."
Will arched a brow and leaned against the nearby flagpole. "I don't think that,"
Will watched her fingers tighten on her arm.
"Have you spoken with Druitt?" he asked.
She shook her head. "He and Tesla are still out," she told him, "doing their... work." Her hand tightened again. "I don't like what they are doing. What they've done."
"But a part of you does," Will guessed. She'd only recently allowed them to once more conduct small strikes against smaller targets, and do recon duties.
She stiffened then nodded minutely. "I suppose that makes me a horrid person."
"I think it makes you human."
She smiled tightly. "I should rise above and be better than that bloody-mindedness."
Will pushed away from the flag pole. "As much as I hate to admit it, having them harass the Cabal has given us some breathing room. We've really needed it." The reluctance was plain in his voice, but Helen hated the acceptance.
They had desperately needed the space though. The counter-attacks had given her network the opportunity to rebuild, to reinforce, to redistribute resources. "Still."
"Do you know what you're going to say when Druitt shows up again?"
She shook her head. "What right do I have to say anything? He wasn't involved. He wasn't my husband."
"He almost was."
"I've often wondered over the years if I really knew him. If he was so utterly turned by his new abilities. Perhaps there were signs of what lurked within that I was blind to see because I was so infatuated."
"Doubt it. I doubt you entered in to that relationship before you'd examined it and determined, with scientific scrutiny of course, that you were in fact in love with a good man." When she looked at him, he smirked to enforce the gentle tease.
"He was the man you wanted to marry. The father of your daughter. Those are real connections."
She was silent, watching the light reflect off the dark water. "He might not even show up. He might spend the day," she paused, trying to pick a word and finding all of them unsuitable, "hunting," she finally said.
"How would you feel if he did that?"
Helen laughed ruefully. "I don't know, Will."
Will stepped up beside her and watched the play of the light on the dark water. It reminded him of the dream he'd had.
His lips compressed into a line before he finally spoke. "I had a dream the other night," he finally admitted. "Ashley was in it."
Her look invited further comment and he shrugged a bit.
"Think it's because Ash's birthday is tomorrow. Must have been on my mind." He recalled some of the details and chuckled a little. "It was kinda like an old Film Noir. I was this hardboiled detective and she was this mafia femme fatale. She had me spying on this other Mafia family. What she didn't tell me was that she already had a spy in there."
"Oh?" Helen asked. She sounded amused, which was good.
Helen laughed and Will grinned. "It was kinda fun. I don't remember a thing except that I did have some pretty great monologues. It was a little bit like us versus the Cabal, but I woke up before the end."
Magnus made a sound and Will put a hand on her shoulder. "Hey. We're here for you," he said.
"Thank you Will. I appreciate that. I think... I think I'll go back to work." She nodded, her smile tight. She patted his hand and left the rooftop.
Helen's office door was open when John arrived. He rapped his knuckles lightly against it anyway as he pushed it open.
"I regret I have little to report," he said, entering the room. He'd looked, but nothing new had been turned up. He knew Ashley's birthday was tomorrow and a part of him wished to spend it ending the Cabal. A greater part, however, wished to be on hand for Helen. He was also certain Ashley would have preferred her mother to be surrounded by friends and family. John wasn't sure where he now sat, but he'd make the offer.
Helen stood at the window much as she had the day of Ashley's memorial service. She looked his way then back out the window, fingers worrying the handkerchief she held in one hand. John stood beside her and looked out the window in silence which was, for once, not frosty, or aching.
"It was a day like this you know," Helen finally spoke into the silence. "The day she was born. Just past nine in the morning." She smiled out the window. "A bright summer day."
John abruptly felt his heart pounding in his chest. He'd never heard this before and he ached to know more, or to have been there, but had never dared to ask. For whatever she would share, he was grateful.
"James was there to hold my hand."
"I'm glad." He couldn't have been there.
"She was loud when she finally cried. I didn't think such a sound could come from someone so small."
"Making an entrance even then?" John was rewarded when Helen smiled.
"She had the biggest eyes. Wisps of blonde hair. When she was content she looked at everything, taking it all in." Helen looked at him finally. "And I missed you so much."
John closed his eyes in pain. "Helen."
"I still miss you."
John extended his hand. Helen stared at it, and then took it briefly.
"Tell me more?" he asked, unable to completely keep the plaintive note out of the request.
Helen searched his face for one breathless moment then nodded. "I have pictures. Would you like to see?"
"She was six pounds even," Helen told him as she walked toward her book case.
John followed. He watched with an odd sort of nervous anticipation as Helen lifted a photo album from her desk. It was one of many neatly stacked on the end and John recognized the spine as having been on her shelf the previous day.
John took the book reverently and opened the first page revealing a blurry ultrasound. It was hard to reconcile the picture with the active woman he'd first met. The next page took his breath away. Helen's hair was a bit of a mess, little brown curls stuck to her face, her skin flushed. Her eyes sparkled in unrestrained joy as she smiled for the camera. Ashley was swaddled in a white blanket, tiny mouth and brows formed into a serious frown that he was very familiar with. One little fist had defiantly escaped the swaddling. She had a little hair, so pale it was nearly invisible. John sank into the nearest seat.
The next page showed Ashley staring at the camera over her mother's shoulder. Helen laughed at someone out of sight. Her eyes were unfocused but so very blue. John looked up at Helen.
Her hand was a warm weight on his shoulder. Her voice was watery. "I know."
John returned his attention to the book, drinking in the details. He carefully studied each page, committing each image to memory. For the first time, he watched his daughter grow up. First steps, first Christmas, first birthday. Helen had taken a picture the first day of school every year and it was easy to see that the smile she wore said she'd rather be anywhere but getting ready for another school year. She learned to ride, to dance, to shoot, to drive. She was covered in paint in one, in flour in another. Mr. Foss and Helen's hirsute butler danced in and out of the images as often as Helen herself did. The later photos were of Ashley and Helen in places like London, or Cairo, or the Amazon, or the Serengeti. There was a photo of the two of them in Rome. It hurt to view that one. They were both smiling but it didn't reach their eyes. The last photos were of the two of them reclining in a Moroccan style tent, heads together, mugging for the camera. Here there was genuine happiness. John swallowed. Reverently, he closed the book. The leather cover caught on his rough fingers.
Slowly, so as not to scare her off, John took Helen's hand. Her fingers were much the same as they'd always been, slim but strong. His other hand clenched into a fist, furious at the Cabal. He'd not been much of a father, but they would feel his full fury for denying him the opportunity, among their many sins. He might be a killer, but he was nothing compared to their works.
Helen's hand on his shoulder was light, tentative. It drew John from his dark thoughts, like a ray of sunshine through the clouds. As always, she was too good for him. He reached up, covering her hand with his own. He fought the rage, shoving it back into it's corner. Perhaps they could find solace together, at least for one day.
"May I stay tomorrow?"
She considered before answering, and for a suspended moment he was terrified she'd banish him. He would go if she asked, but he wished to stay. His inner demons howled for blood, but it didn't seem appropriate for tomorrow. The day after he would take up his grim work again.
He nodded, infinitely relieved. "Thank you."
He'd followed he on her rounds after dinner. She'd explained that what had once taken only a few hours now took many more. He followed at a distance as leaders of groups took her aside to thank her or request something or conduct some matter of business. He was part of and apart from life here in the Sanctuary. It was, he realized ruefully, the state of his life for more than a century now. He recognized that he shouldn't have such dark thoughts, but he was old, familiar enemies with his personal demons after such a span of years. It was easier to brush them aside in the wake of Nikola's impromptu electro-shock therapy. He'd never admit it, but he did owe the man a favor.
John watched Helen move from task to task, healing, helping, lending an ear. Perhaps he alone recognized the front she was putting up, the mask of strength against impossible odds. He schooled his own features into calm neutrality as if they were doing nothing more than taking an evening stroll. She'd become quite good at being a general, and the residents responded to her outward appearance of total control and calm.
When the last enclosure had been visited and the last group of refugees checked in with, she'd given her orders to the night staff. The small collection of refugees-turned-workers nodded and went about their tasks. Ms. Freelander had pulled the short straw and was on-call this particular evening. She eyed John as she always had, even before she'd known his... role in history. She was a sharp one. John approved of such vigilance; they needed more in such times.
Helen watched her staff disperse and turned for the stairs. John followed a half step behind, letting her lead the way. He was surprised when she stepped onto the patio off the kitchens. It was a beautiful, clear night. Late night traffic rumbled faintly over the walls and he could hear some late-night residents quietly speaking just inside through the open door.
He watched her for a few moments before speaking. "It's a quiet night. Perhaps you should sleep."
She looked at him out of the corner of her eye. "We don't get too many of those."
"No," he agreed.
She didn't move though. They'd both learned patience in the last century it seemed, so John stood with her in the dark. Her eyes were closed and the light from inside caught her hair. He still wondered why she'd decided to dye it. Or perhaps it had begun to grow in brown as some side effect of her abnormality.
Somewhere in the darkness, a church bell tolled midnight. Helen winced as the first bell rang out in the distance. She let out a single shuddering breath as the last bell rang out. Helen took another deep breath and let it out slowly, regaining control.
"She'd be proud of you, I think."
Helen looked over at him. "God, I hope so." She regarded the night for another moment. "I should turn in." She didn't make a move despite her words.
John offered his arm. "I'll walk you to your rooms."
Helen studied him.
"Tomorrow will be difficult enough without adding exhaustion," he added gently.
She nodded and took his arm. Her grip was light, as if she might drop him at a moment's notice. John just wished to see her get some sleep if she could. He wouldn't put it past some of the more argumentative Heads of House to pressure her on some bit of business, fully knowing it would have been Ashley's birthday.
"I told her about you. You before, I mean."
John turned in surprise.
"The old John was dead. I told myself I wasn't lying to her."
Perhaps they'd all died that day in some way.
Helen fell back into silence again and the careful mask began to crack as they drew closer to her bedroom. Finally at the door, it slid away entirely.
"Would you like me to stay?" he asked, quickly adding, "If you'd like to speak more of her? Or even if you'd like some silent company?"
He thought she might decline for a moment before she nodded and silently let him in her bedroom.
It was like and unlike her room when they'd stolen time together, sneaking around with the boldness and joy of youth. It was neat and tidy, and she still seemed to prefer darker woods. He thought perhaps he even recognized the antique dresser, though a great many years, and wars, had passed. He did recognize the vanity. It had belonged to her mother and had been in her bedroom in London, all those years ago. Unlike then, she didn't sit before the mirror and flirt with him as she carefully removed her jewelry and unpinned her hair. Helen moved with quick efficiency then into her bathroom, closing the door mostly behind her.
Feeling awkward, John decided the safe and easy thing to do would be to take a seat.
Helen emerged from her bathroom wearing a set of silk pyjamas, her face free of makeup. She turned off the lights save the one on the bedside table nearest John, and climbed into bed. John turned out the light. She shifted, uncomfortable perhaps, or maybe plagued by memories. Her breathing eventually evened out as she slept. The light in the room was enough he could see she frowned slightly in her sleep.
John recalled times past, when he'd watched her fall asleep. Sometimes she'd been ill, sometimes consumed by a problem of science. Usually she'd been at peace, content that he was there.
His daughter smiled up at Helen from a silver framed photo by her bedside. John picked up the photo and studied it for a long while before replacing the memento. Tonight, he would be here. Tomorrow, he'd begin the hunt again.
She was in London, in the home she'd had when she was a child. The building had become part of the London Sanctuary property before the Blitz. It had suffered so much damage, the building had to be torn down. They'd rebuilt it with the expanded London Sanctuary in mind and it bore little resemblance to the original; but Helen remembered.
The narrow halls filled with Mother's paintings weren't empty of people, but the servants didn't seem to see her. She was wearing modern clothing, but all around her she saw the household staff going about their daily business in period clothing. One of the maids rushed through her on some errand or other. Startled, Helen darted into the sitting room.
She was there. Her mother.
"Oh," Helen breathed. She'd not seen her mother so clearly for more than a century. All that remained were a few faded photographs and faint memories.
"Helen?" Her mother called, looking up from her watercolor. Her mother had favored watercolors, she remembered.
"Mama?" Helen answered.
Startled again, Helen turned and saw herself as child. Her hair was a bit of a mess and there was a smudge of dirt on her dress which matched the mud on her shoes.
"You," Particia said, setting her brushes down, "were in the garden again."
"Yes," Young Helen admitted, ducking her head.
Patricia sighed. "Oh what am I to do with you, Helen?"
Younger Helen scuffed a shoe across the floor. Old Helen knew, as the younger did, that her mother wasn't truly cross. Her mother looked upon her with tolerant humor.
Her mother smiled. "Fortunately, I am well aware of your wild ways, Miss Magnus. Come here then. Your braid is a mess."
Obediently, Helen sat before her mother on a foot-stool with a small giggle.
"What did you see in the garden?" her mother asked as she undid Helen's braid and began to brush her hair out again. It was blonde and frightfully curly. Patricia's hair was the same color and Helen recalled being so pleased that they looked alike. One day, she'd be a beautiful woman like her mother.
Helen's younger self happily recounted the flowers and birds she'd seen in the gardens. Patricia carefully quizzed her and Helen now realized she'd been asking her rather astute natural sciences questions.
"You did that with me, too."
Helen whirled around. Ashley stood in the doorway wearing period proper clothing in jewel-tone sapphire. Her eyes were fixed on younger Helen and Patricia, her grandmother.
Ashley looked up. "You quizzed me. I just realized it now. Sneaky." She winked.
Helen nodded mutely.
Ashley stepped into the room and crouched on the floor by the vision, studying Helen as a child. "You had really frizzy hair," she decided, eliciting a small laugh from Helen. Ashley turned her attention to her grandmother.
Helen drifted forward cautiously, afraid Ashley would disappear, or perhaps teleport away. Very slowly she crouched beside Ashley, afraid to breathe, least she disturb this moment.
At length Ashley looked up at her with a watery smile. "My hair is like hers. If I don't blow-dry it straight, I mean. Kinda wavy at the end."
Helen nodded. The riot of curls had relaxed a little as she grew older, then entirely after the sourceblood. "I'm afraid her artistic talent skipped a generation. I was always rubbish at anything beyond stick figures."
Ashley turned her attention back to her grandmother. Patricia looked at her as young Helen continued to chatter about the life cycle of butterflies. The surprised expression grew into a brilliant smile, one all three generations shared. Patricia reached out and touched Ashley's cheek.
Younger Helen had disappeared. The house had as well for that matter. Helen noted this remotely, her attention on this impossible meeting. Her mother looked over at her and Helen found her throat close and her chest tighten.
Her mother smiled softly, blue eyes shining. "Helen, she's beautiful."
"Mama," Helen reach out for her, for them both. "Ashley."
"It's okay, Mom," Ashley told her. "It's okay."
"You've done so well, Helen."
Helen shuddered, tears escaping. "I miss you."
"I'm always with you, dearest," her mother told her. "I'm so proud of you. You've lived, Helen. Far more than most people ever bother to."
Gentle fingers touched her face and Helen leaned in to them. Her mother smelled of lilacs and pastel paints. Her fingers were warm and steady on her cheek, lacking the cool, frail quality they'd had at the end of her mother's life. Her mother pulled out a kerchief and dabbed at Helen's cheeks before folding the fabric in Helen's hand. It was monogrammed with Patricia's initials.
Her mother turned her attention to Ashley, taking the younger woman's hands in both of her own. "You have a lot ahead of you."
Ashley nodded. "Yeah." She took a deep breath and let it out. "Yeah I'm kinda getting that."
Patricia grinned and shook her hands lightly. "You can do it. You come from a long line of fighters." Her expression turned wry and she added, "Though, I think you might be the most literal."
Ashley laughed a little and nodded.
"You were born at the right time," Patricia decided. She winked. "And I'm glad to know you can do more than just stick figures."
Helen couldn't help but smile.
Patricia reached up and took off her necklace. It was simple gold with sapphires and it had been her mother's favorite necklace. She put it around Ashley's neck and adjusted it slightly. "This is all I can give you. Remember to be strong. Remember to think before you leap." She took Ashley's hands again and shook them. "Remember to find the beauty in things, Ashley."
Ashley nodded, looking sad and happy at the same time. Helen realized that their surroundings had changed. It felt colder. Her mother looked fainter.
Helen reached for her mother with one hand, Ashley with the other.
Patricia, squeezed Helen's fingers and touched her cheek again with the other hand. "Helen, you know I can't stay."
"You must let go," her mother told her. "You mustn't dwell."
Helen touched the fingers on her cheek. "I love you."
Patricia smiled. "And I you. Live for me, Helen. As fully as you can. Every day."
"I will," Helen vowed. Those had been her mother's last words to her. She'd fallen asleep soon after that. And then...
The room was suddenly grey and dreary. It was filled with somber men and women in mourning blacks. Her father was quietly devastated as he received people in a never-ending line. Tears had left track on younger Helen's cheeks, but she stood stoically beside her father.
Helen looked around. "Ashley!"
"I'm here," Ashley said, at Helen's elbow. Her clothing had changed to period appropriate mourning wear as well.
Helen sought her hand. The funeral had been on a cold wintry day. Now, as then, she felt the eyes of everyone on her back. She'd felt very alone that day.
"This was the funeral?"
"Yes. Mama was much loved."
"You're wearing her necklace," Ashley noted, pointing out the single bit of color on younger Helen.
Helen's lips quirked on one side. "I wanted to feel close to her. She'd let me wear her things sometimes."
"We did that too."
Helen squeezed her hand. "We did, dear heart. I wanted to give that necklace to you today."
"Your birthday. I was going to wait until you were twenty five, but I thought I'd do it this year instead after what happened with… with your father."
Helen gave her a sad smile. "Happy birthday, Ashley." She didn't care if her voice broke.
Ashley's jaw dropped in shock. "So…" She looked around then focused on Helen, her grip a little desperate. "Mom?"
"I miss you."
She was doing a remarkable job of controlling her panic, Helen thought. It killed her to see. She touched Ashley's shoulder gently.
"So much time..." she looked bewildered. "I'm sorry." She met Helen's eyes. "Mom, I'm sorry."
They were suddenly in the chapel. There were a few flowers and a simple empty casket. That afternoon, Berlin would have been fire-bombed, cutting Helen's mourning period short. Helen wore the suit she'd worn to Ashley's funeral. Ashley wore the white she'd imagined her daughter wearing. Helen brushed long bangs out of her face.
"You had such a pretty face and I shouldn't have let you hide it."
Ashley batted her hand away reflexively. Helen smiled. She'd been certain her daughter hated her forehead but had never admitted it out loud. Straightening her hair had been a way to make her look different from Helen. She'd been searching for her own identity and Helen had let her find her own way, as frustrating or silly as it might have seemed.
"You were so wonderful. Did I squander that?"
"No!" She shook her head rapidly. "Well, neither of us is really good with the mushy stuff, and I was kinda stupid about things and maybe so were you." she broke off and shook her head. "The point is, we're not perfect, but we try." She laughed a little and gestured to herself. "Can you really see me sitting around on my hands? Doing lab research? Come on. I’d have driven you insane."
"Instead, I let you learn how to use a weapon. I took you to dangerous parts of the world. I..." She broke off.
Helen looked up. Ashley's eyes were clear and solemn. She touched Helen's shoulder.
"Mom. I wanted to help. I asked you if I could go. I couldn't stand by and just let them unleash God knows what. I can't do that. You taught me better than that," she concluded, voice gentle.
"I'm trying so hard," Helen told her. "I… I see things."
"I know. You told me."
"I – They're wearing us down. They're wearing me down."
"Mom." Ashley held her hands. "You can beat them. I know you can. We'll beat them."
"I wish you were here to help."
"I am," Ashley told her. "Fight for me, Mom." She paused then added. "Don't give up!"
Helen winced. The vision knew the pain in her heart, knew what ideas she'd entertained in the darkest hours. They were just ideas though. Helen couldn't give up. Too many relied on her.
"Mom. Don't. Give. Up. Long line of fighters, remember? That includes you."
Helen laughed a little. "Well, I can hardly break with tradition," she said.
"I know it will be okay," Helen said, eyes lifting to the partial roof of the old cathedral. "I know it will. It's hard to remember that sometimes." She looked at Ashley. "You were the most wonderful thing to ever happen to me."
Ashley's answering smile was watery. "They made me do things. Could… Could I even have come home?"
"Always. That wasn't you. You're not cruel."
"Even – Even with..."
"You're not like that, Ashley. You weren't like that. I wanted to save you, bring you home."
A tear rolled down Ashley's cheek. Helen brushed it away with the kerchief her mother had handed to her. "You'd always have been welcome home." She folded Ashley's hands around the fabric. "Always."
Ashley's shoulders relaxed and an expression of relief crossed her face. Her smile was beatific. "Thank you." She sighed shakily. "I think I'm okay now," she said, though Helen was somehow certain she wasn't speaking to her.
"Ashley?" Helen's grip became tighter.
"It'll be okay, Mom." Ashley told her. She was suddenly wearing leather and silver battle armor, though it was an odd mix between modern and archaic. "It'll be okay." She slipped her hand from Helen's. The fabric of the kerchief she'd been given had been wadded up into a ball. It ignited into a small star in Ashley's palm. Her fingers closed around it and Ashley smiled. "It'll be okay."
Helen let her go, hands dropping to either side. "I love you."
Ashley smiled, the brilliance of the miniature star in her hand making it hard for Helen to see her. "I know."
When the light faded, she was gone. Helen let out a trembling breath. The cathedral suddenly felt dark an ominous. She looked around and saw something huge and coiled in the shadows, but nothing was there when she faced it. Helen looked back where her daughter had last been, but nothing remained but memory.
Helen startled awake as her alarm went off. She silenced the device and sat up in bed, the shreds of the dream clinging to her like cobwebs. She shuddered as she exhaled. Heart in her throat, Helen balled a fist in her covers. Today would have been her daughter's twenty-fourth birthday. Helen took another shuddering breath and let the tears come for once. She'd give herself just a few minutes. Then she'd go on with her day, because there were others who needed her.
She was alone, but the seat where John had been sitting was still warm. If not for that, she'd have thought their conversation the previous day was a dream as well. Helen's heart ached as she recalled fragments of her dream. Surely if there was a heaven, her mother and daughter were together. Helen slipped from her bed and got ready for the day. She dressed as she would have on any other day. There were too many eyes on her now. The suits were armor.
Sitting at her dresser she surveyed her jewelery. The bright blue of crystal beads knit into spheres caught her eye. The constructs were not precisely professional, but it was worth more to her than many of her other pieces. She remembered the Christmas her daughter had given the earrings to her, so quietly worried the handmade gift wouldn't be good enough when her mother had so many valuable things. Helen touched the bead work with a small smile, swallowing around the lump in her throat, then put the earrings on. She picked up the necklace her daughter had commissioned for her birthday, reflecting on the thoughtful symbology of the pendant - a book on one side, the sun on the other. The sun side was mostly golden. Helen would wear that today in honor and memory.
"I miss you," she murmured.
I miss you too.
Helen shook her head. More of the dream, most likely.
Fixing her makeup, Helen left her rooms to face the day. Tonight, Henry had decided they'd have a family dinner, just like they would have had. He was determined to remember the good times. Helen was grateful to have people surrounding her today. She knew that this first year would be the hardest.
John was seated at the table when she entered the kitchen. It was still early enough the rest of the household hadn't yet begun to wake. Helen started a pot of coffee. John watched her and when she finally sat with her cup, he lifted a brow in inquiry.
"Seems right, somehow," she said, gesturing the mug. She cleared her throat. "Besides, I don't know how to make an espresso."
John put out a forestalling hand and took the mug away. Helen watched as he set the mug to one side then turned on the espresso machine her staff had conspired to buy. It was their response to her complaints about how much they spent at Starbucks and other coffee houses in the area. She'd not known he knew how to work the machine, though she wasn't entirely surprised; John had always been fond of coffee.
Helen folded her hands. "I had a dream about her," she said, feeling the need to discuss it, to confess. She knew John was listening though he didn't speak. "We were in my old house in London before it was rebuilt. Do you remember?"
He paused, and then nodded. "The park across the street was lovely."
Helen smiled at the memory. "Yes. Mother —" her voice caught. "Mother and I would stroll under the trees when I was young. We'd recite rhymes and poetry, tell stories." She wiped her eyes surreptitiously. "I did that with Ashley when she was little. It —" she stopped, her throat growing unbearably tight.
"I imagine Patricia would have been honored," John said, pausing in his task. "Gregory spoke of her often enough, at least I believe she would have been."
Helen nodded. "I wasn't going to give her mother's name. I wasn't going to be that sentimental. But... It seemed right when I saw her." Helen studied her hands as John turned back to the espresso. "In the dream, Ashley and I saw myself as a child sitting with my mother. I didn't realize how much she was teaching me then."
She was a teacher. As are you.
She recalled the funerals and speaking with her daughter, but more precious was the vision of her mother and daughter together. That had given her a measure of peace to see, but then there had been the strange, dark coiled presence watching her...
John set a cup down in front of her and Helen startled, realizing she'd been lost in thought. He sat with a second cup across the table from her.
"Mr. Foss once remarked that Ashley enjoyed these," he said, lifting his cup.
Helen sipped and was surprised to find chocolate mixed with the bitter coffee flavor. "She did." She paused, and then started, "I didn't —"
John made an elegant gesture indicating she should speak first.
"I didn't know you knew how to make coffee like this."
"Something I picked up along the way," he said. "I..." he paused before continuing, "I had a dream about her some weeks ago."
Helen remained silent, allowing him to continue if he so chose.
"It's faded somewhat. It was London as we knew it, or a version of it at least. It was strange, as if everything was made of white light and we were the only bits of color." He folded his long fingers around the cup. "I remember she was looking for something as well." A hint of a smirk touched his lips, twisting the scar on his cheek. "We fought our inner demons, she and I."
"You know," she said, "My old friend had a dream where she was looking for something, too."
"I never saw what it was, but she found it in the end. I held them off while she escaped onto the Underground of all things. Then I woke up." He finished his coffee and collected his dishes, placing them in the washer. He gave the machine a quick wipe down then stood in the center of her kitchen awkwardly.
"You know," he added, almost as an afterthought, "My inner demon was quiet for a time after that. I've hoped to dream of her again, but I haven't. Perhaps that's a strange thing to say." He looked at her and their eyes met and held. "I rather liked being on the same side for once." Then he turned and left, silent as a cat.
She'd noticed that Henry was hiding something almost immediately. He wasn't the only one. Her Old Friend and Will were keeping something from her as well. Helen eyed them all. "Out with it," she ordered.
Henry and her Old Friend exchanged a look. Will's jaw was set, but he handed her an opened envelope.
"I made sure it doesn't have any booby traps," Henry said. "It's clean."
The envelope had no postmark and was a normal-looking mass produced card. Helen did not want to open an unmarked card that made her staff nervous, and especially not on her daughter's birthday. She opened it anyway.
It was a tasteful sympathy card. The picture of great redwoods and soft lighting between the trunks, a hint of mist on the path. The card was signed simply and elegantly.
With Sympathy, Dana Whitcomb
The hatred Helen Magnus felt for the Cabal flared into an incandescent fury. If the card had been intended to hurt her, it had succeeded. If it had been intended to scare or cow her, it failed. She would not rush out into battle either, but she was resolved to fight and win.
Helen tucked the card back into the envelope and let it fall into the trash bin beside her desk. "What's on the schedule for today?"
A week after Ashley's birthday and this time it was Will who brought her the bad news. Helen had been going over some changes Henry and Nikola wished to do to harden their power and utilities against interference.
"Solar would work, certainly. If we were in Cairo. Or anyplace not perpetually overcast," Nikola drawled.
Henry gave him a flat look. "Look, every bit helps. We did some research while we were converting Cairo to solar and the new generation of paneling needs way less sunlight than previous ones."
Nikola arched an eyebrow.
Will coughed from the doorway.
"Will?" Helen asked. He looked a bit flushed, possibly even angry.
"The department of Homeland Security wants to know about the terrorists we've been encountering at our facilities abroad. They would like to confirm that the report given by your colleague Mr. Wexford is complete and accurate." He handed her a computer with an email queued up.
Helen set her jaw and quickly read the email. "Henry," she said. "Would you call the other Heads. We have a matter to discuss."
"Terrance, I cannot believe you would do such a thing," Pili said.
Thus far, Helen reflected, she'd had to do remarkably little in the way of chastising. Once the other Heads had heard what he'd done, most of them had either scowled or bawled him outright. Sydney looked like he might agree with Wexford. Jakarta certainly did, but said little given the lack of general support.
"We must stand united or not at all," Pili concluded. She'd not raised her voice, but had calmly chewed him out for not respecting the other Heads, his own station, and the decisions made by the group.
"I maintain that I was asking in the best interests of the network as a whole," he said in his defense. His humility in the face of the other Heads didn't appear to be as genuine as Helen would have liked, but it was
"That's all well and good," Declan said, "But you did it anyway, and now we're dealing with the fallout." None of them wanted additional attention from the world governments, knowing it would simply become another avenue for the Cabal to attack them. Now Terrance had thrust the door wide open, practically inviting them in. The annual UN inspections were already enough of a security concern without adding national governments.
"You should be removed," Onryuji, Toyko's new Head added. He still did not have a permanent place of residence for his people, but he, Beijing, and Moscow were all on this call. His pale eyes were narrowed to slits as he regarded Wexford.
"We cannot afford a change at this time," Jakarta spoke up.
"That is a very harsh punishment," New Delhi added.
Onryuji said nothing, but his irate expression remained.
"Perhaps probation," Pili proposed.
"What do you suggest?" Helen asked.
"Oversight from another House. Someone who will watch and assist Terrance until we are certain he can be trusted to act like an adult, and not a rebellous child." Pili’s expression was one of extreme disappointment.
Wexford reacted to that dig with a scowl, but he seemed to respect Pili enough to not say anything.
"Do you have anyone who could be spared?" Ravi asked. "Does anyone?"
A handful of the Heads nodded, mostly the Houses that had not been hit as hard, Rio, Cairo and London among them. Helen put Will's name there as well, though she would have preferred he stay to help wrangle the situation here at home.
"Terrance, we will discuss the matter and contact you," Helen said, speaking over everyone when it looked like a solution wasn't immediately forthcoming.
His wore a surly glare, but nodded. "I trust the good judgment of the Network Heads," he said and signed off.
"So," Helen said, "What shall we do about this?"
"Is it really that bad?" Jakarta asked.
"The decision was made," Onryuji said. "He took it upon himself to go against that decision."
"But what if he's right?"
"Since he opened his mouth," Helen broke in, "We've had to field several inconvenient questions from the government. Will has been able to handle them thus far, but we've also had several attempts made on our network. I find it hard to believe that these events are unrelated."
"With some oversight, Terrance will be fine," Berlin added, clucking as he shook his head. "He's new to being a Head of House and was just doing as he thought was best. It was wrong, yes, but I do not believe he's a lost cause."
"I could send Will, but I'd prefer someone who was more familiar with the network as a whole," Helen said. Will’s familiarity was based mostly on Old City. If and when this war ended, she would have to make certain that he gained some experience at the other Sanctuaries. "Aaron perhaps?" she offered, looking at Declan. She remembered Maria's push for Aaron to head London and wondered if perhaps he did want to move upwards. He was certainly a better man to deal with than Terrance was.
"I'd prefer to keep him here in case things go pear-shaped," Declan said, "but he's spent some time in New York and would be a familiar face."
"Tiaa Bahur is currently there, I believe," New Delhi spoke up.
"She was planning on returning home," Pili said. "But if we asked politely, she might consider staying."
"She was considered for the New York position originally," New Delhi said.
"For that reason, I'm not sure she would be the best choice," Dr. Li said, speaking for the first time. "He may become defensive and more likely to repeat his mistake."
"Given that he has now brought the United States government into the picture," Ravi added, "A nine-hundred year old sphinx may not be the best choice."
"Well, she wouldn't be out and about," Declan said. "So he might feel some job security in that."
"Can you spare Aaron, and would he be willing to go?" Helen asked.
Declan rubbed the back of his neck as he thought. "There’s no one here I trust more than Aaron," he said, obviously reluctant to give up a valuable staff member and friend given the current chaos. "He's not one for politics so he won't be happy moving, but he'll go and he'll be honest."
"It is settled then," Maria stated. "Enough time has been wasted on this foolishness." She cut the communication abruptly.
Helen fought the urge to sigh. Japan signed off almost as briskly.
"I'll make arrangements," Declan said.
The other Heads disconnected their calls and finally Helen did sigh and rub at her temples. "How bad is it?" she asked Will, who'd been lurking the last few minutes.
"Not bad," he said. "Not good, but not bad. We could be worse off."
"I suppose it would be worse if the building were on fire," Helen added darkly.
"We can expect an inspector," Will said, passing her a tablet computer.
"This sort of thing happen often?" he asked, pitching his voice low.
"Until recently it was rare for the whole of the network to need to weigh in on something. At least we have the technology to make it work. The earliest conference calls were nightmarish."
Will chuckled. "But seriously, what usually happens when a Head steps out of line?"
"There are repercussions and we have procedures." Helen sighed. "Sometimes it feels like a kangaroo court, but these are reasonable people."
Will leaned against the table. "In reasonable times, maybe."
Helen had to grant that point. "The severity is more that he directly undermined my authority as the Head of the Network on top of going against the majority of the Heads. The issue had been decided and while we do have some leeway, as you said it, these aren't the most reasonable of times." She shook her head sadly. There were a number of things she'd done, some she'd even gotten away with, that would not sit well with the rest of the network. Helen prayed those betrayals wouldn't be uncovered. She'd made her bed and she'd lie in it, but it would be inconvenient now.
"I have some contacts in Washington. Hopefully they're not in the Cabal's pockets already." She stood. "I'll make those calls now. Best to nip this in the bud while I still can."
"Wexford's new. Maybe we can say he panicked."
"Maybe. I'm afraid he's opened a door I'd rather have left closed."
"Hey," Will said, spreading his hands and arms wide. "Things haven't been going our way. That has to change sometimes."
Helen smiled, but she didn't managed the optimism Will had.
By the evening, Helen had managed to arrange when the government inspection team would arrive. They'd been called an "anti-terrorist specialist" team, but Helen knew they were likely FBI agents, there to inspect her facility and team. It would require very delicate handling, but they had some time to prepare.
She became aware of the other presence in her office. For a moment, she thought it was John, since he was the one who was most able to come and go, quiet as a shadow. Howewver, it was the dark-skinned abnormal man who was inspecting her curio case when she looked up. He cast no reflection.
He pointed at an artifact in the case, a small reptile skull with a large pearl set into the forehead. He smiled. "I haven't seen one of these in ages."
Helen folded her hands on her blotter. "It's very old. It was a gift from a colleague of mine."
He nodded and continued to peruse the artifacts in the case, naming them and often the region of origin. Masks, pendants, tools, bones; he seemed to have a broad understanding of many of the items in the case. He paused at the middle shelf. "This one... An unusual set. I'm afraid I'm not as familiar with technology. What is it?"
Helen stood and walked a few steps over so she could see what he was pointing at. "Those are... Special. They are a series of cryogenic apparatuses. I designed the first in the eighteen-eighties."
"You seem troubled."
"Well, I have an abnormal in my office who no one else has seen nor heard of."
"True," he mused, "But that isn't everything."
"I'm not certain that I have anything I should discuss with you."
"You're either an abnormal with powers of invisibility and possibly either phasing or teleportation, or..."
He smiled gently. "Or you're going crazy and I am merely a figment of your imagination."
Helen made a little "there you are" gesture with one hand.
"That is a quandary."
Helen's eyes narrowed. "So which is it? Who are you?"
He chuckled. "Tell me, Dr. Magnus, what do you think about your incoming visitors?"
Helen weighed her options. She could engage in this conversation, or she could leave. If there really was an abnormal in her office, she could get help. If she were going crazy... Helen really didn't want to consider that option. Too many people needed her right now for her to have a psychotic break. If it were a matter of her not getting enough sleep and being under too much stress, this could easily be her subconscious trying to resolve the past several months.
"It isn't what I would have chosen, but now we have to deal with it. Perhaps it's an opportunity to gain more allies," she said, diplomatically.
"So you see it as a good thing?"
"There are a great many dangers. The Cabal could use this as an avenue of attack, the government could decide they wanted to come in and change things, exploit us, or shut us down. We've tried to maintain good relations, but they don't always understand us and people fear what they don't understand." She crossed her arms. "We have to handle it, try and get them to understand that what we are isn't a threat. I suppose while I'm not pleased with how it happened, I won't let it beat me." She sighed and went to the window, staring out at the night. "The longer this conflict dragged on, the more likely it was that it would spill out. I suppose it was inevitable. Now we have to manage it, and if possible, make it an advantage."
The man nodded. "Perhaps this is a good thing. There was a time long past when abnormals as you call them, lived and worked alongside what you consider normal humans."
"Yes, and the preeminent race of abnormals enslaved humanity."
"Not just humanity but others of their own kind as well as other abnormals." He shook his head sadly. "The Akhkharu. Such a tragedy."
Helen frowned. "What —"
"What would you risk to save your people? Would you sacrifice your secrecy?"
That was something new and different. "Is that a threat?"
He stared at her evenly. "It's a question."
Helen stepped away from the window and into her office. "I've thought about it. We've not been precisely secret, but we haven't exactly advertised either. There are times when I think I'd like a little bit more awareness..." She said, trailing off. Helen recalled the reporter and camera man who'd stumbled onto one of their hunts. It had ended badly for the cameraman. "Then there are many other times," she continued, "I am terrified of the idea. It isn't anything I would rush into. The world isn't ready for a broad reintroduction yet." Her lips quirked. "Perhaps we aren't ready for it either."
"If you and your people do not act, then you may be quietly killed before you have the opportunity to consider greater goals, let alone accomplish them."
"Who are you, really?"
"An interested party."
"Hey, Doc!" Kate called from the door.
Helen spun around, surprised. "Kate. Has something come up?" She expected more bad news.
Kate walked into the office warily. "No," she said, drawing the word out. She looked around. "Who were you talking to?"
Helen turned but of course the abnormal was gone. Helen faced Kate again. "An abnormal. I believe he might be one of the refugees."
She arched a brow. "You believe? Doc, you know everyone and every critter in this place." She crossed her arms.
Helen lifted her chin. "Will and I discussed this."
"And he didn't find anything when he went looking," Kate said. "He had me help." Kate dropped her arms and her eyes grew soft. "Look, Boss, do you want to take a day off?"
"Thank you Kate but I'm fine." Helen looked away but something out of the corner of her eye caught her attention. She was in mid-turn when Kate dove forward, shoving her back and down. The glass shattered and Helen felt a spray of heat. Kate cried in pain and they hit the floor. Helen's breath was knocked out, but she curled away from the window, ducking her head.
"Shit," Kate swore.
Helen was relieved to hear her voice. She'd been sure Kate had been shot. There had even been blood. Helen gasped for air and her hand found a warm pool. Someone had been hit. She felt her chest with her other hand and didn't find any wounds.
Kate groaned and had curled in on herself. "Doc..."
Helen looked at the window. One of the panes had been shot out. She stayed low in case another shot was taken, and found her blackberry.
"Hang on, Kate," Helen ordered as she quickly called Henry's phone.
"Sniper! Put us in lockdown!"
The heavy protective metal slammed down a moment later as Henry activated their security protocols.
"Henry, Kate's been hit. I need help up here!"
"On it!" he said and hung up.
Helen dropped the now blood-covered phone to the floor and crawled over to Kate. "Let me see," she ordered, as she used firm hands to move Kate so she could see the wound.
"I'm really beginning to hate these guys," Kate ground out through gritted teeth.
Helen applied pressure to the wound, waiting for Will and her Old Friend to arrive with medical supplies and a stretcher.
John was the first to arrive. His eyes flicked to the window, the pool of blood and down to Helen. "Helen, what's happened?"
"Sniper. Kate's been shot."
"They tried to take out the Doc," Kate told him, still wincing from the pain. "Had to have come from across the river."
Helen frowned. She'd not intended to tell John that part. John held her eyes for a moment then rose, long coat swirling about his feet ominously.
"They could be trying to flush us out."
"They're trying to kill you!" Kate said.
John glared at the shuttered windows. "I'm going to take a look."
"The sniper is long gone."
"I'll be only a few moments," John said. He turned and left before Helen could protest further.
"Magnus!" Will raced into the room with her Old Friend right behind him. They slid to the floor beside them. Will looked at the shattered glass then met Magnus' eyes. His jaw set, eyes flashing in anger.
"Help me get her to the infirmary," Helen ordered. She'd deal with everything else once she was sure Kate wasn't going to bleed out.
Kate woke up with the sneaking suspicion that she was in the infirmary again. Slowly opening her eyes, she immediately winced. Yep. Those were the infirmary lights. She was once again in the stylish infirmary attire. At last this time she wasn't handcuffed to the bed. Everything was floaty and muted so she'd been put on the good drugs.
Kate looked to her left. It took awhile because she lost her head for few minutes. Eventually she saw Biggie. "I think so."
He grunted. "I'll tell Magnus."
"Awesome," she said, resuming her study of the ceiling.
Magnus was suddenly there with a pen light. So was Will.
"What happened to your cigar?"
The Doc frowned. "Cigar?"
"Yeah." Kate blinked slowly. "Did we kill the bugs?"
"Bugs?" Will questioned.
"Yeah. Blondie and I were killing these big lovecraftian bug alien things." She blinked a few times. "You were there."
Kate tried to focus on Will. "Yeah?"
"You were shot."
Kate looked at the bandages around her shoulder. "So," she said after careful consideration, "This isn't from the alien bug queen stabbing me."
"No. I'm afraid you're on some rather powerful painkillers," Magnus told her. "And we have you on some additional medication to prevent infection and promote healing."
"Oh. Who shot me?"
Magnus and Will exchanged a look. "We believe it was the Cabal."
"Oh." She looked at the bandage again, but it was too close and it hurt her eyes to focus at that short distance. she settled for scowling at the far wall. "I hate those guys."
Will chuckled. "We're glad to see you awake. Magnus I'll...?"
"Go," she said, shooing him off. Will left, leaving Kate and Magnus alone. "You should get some rest," Magnus said, pushing some drug or other into the IV bag Kate hadn't noticed.
"You're the boss," Kate said, falling asleep.
Helen was in the infirmary when Kate woke next. She groaned in pain and Helen hurried over to assist.
"Here," she said, carefully helping Kate sit up. She gave her another dose of the pain medication. "This will take effect in a moment."
Kate groaned. "Anyone else get hit?"
"Some shots were taken at the other sanctuaries," Helen said. Kate was not the worst casualty, but they'd been lucky. Extremely lucky.
"Who?" she asked, evidently having picked up on what Helen hadn't said.
"Suharto, the House Head in Jakarta. The House Heads appeared to have been targeted."
"Sloppy," Kate said, grimacing. "Saw them paint you."
"We believe," Helen told her, "that they were not seriously trying to assassinate us all. If they got any of us, that would have been fortunate for them."
"So what?" she asked, "they were just being dicks because they can?"
"We believe they are trying to cause panic and demoralize us."
"It's totally working."
Helen nodded. "Kate," she said, gently touching Kate's hand. "Thank you."
"You pushed me out of the way. Thank you."
Kate didn't quite meet Helen's eyes. "Just doing my job, Boss."
Helen knew Kate wasn't exactly the type to get overly emotional. Ashley had been much the same way – so was Helen herself, to an extent – so she recognized it easily. She patted Kate's hand. "Thank you," she repeated.
Kate met her eyes this time and nodded. "Sure," she said shrugging her shoulder. Unfortunately she shrugged the injured one. "Ow."
Helen helped her settle back into the bed and turned to leave so Kate could get some rest.
Helen paused. "Yes?"
"You should maybe talk about this abnormal you keep seeing. I don't think he exists."
Helen had been afraid of that. She looked over her shoulder. "I'll discuss it with Will then." And perhaps she'd discuss the abnormal with Nikola. He'd mentioned the vampires, and Nikola was an expert.
"Cool," Kate said, settling back into the bed. She let out a long sigh. "I'm stuck here for awhile, aren't I?"
Kate rolled her eyes. "Great."
Henry rolled his shoulders. He'd been hunched over his workbench for way too long, but he couldn’t stop now. The Cabal had literally taken a shot at them, had tried to take out the Doc from across the river. He had a plan for replacing all the windows with bulletproof glass, but it was prohibitively expensive unless they discovered a pile of cash under a mattress or something.
Tesla worked at the bench behind him. While Henry was working on armor, Tesla's project was more offensively minded. The tiny pulse weapon would hopefully knock most things out without killing. Non-lethal had been Magnus' only stipulation and while Nikola had grumbled, he'd held to that limit. The initial tests were promising at least. It could knock out a Nubbin at fifteen meters.
"Nikola?" The Doc was at the door.
"Hey Doc," Henry greeted.
"Helen." Tesla wiped his hands. "What fresh hell has happened?"
The Doc rolled her eyes a little. "Nothing so dramatic, Nikola."
Tesla shrugged a shoulder and went back to work. "I'm not quite finished with this task if you were wondering about that. Perhaps you should pester your little wolf. He insists on using that horrid Kevlar weave."
Henry gave the Doc a "help me," look then turned back to the armor.
"Actually Nikola, I had some questions about the Akhkharu."
Tesla stopped what he was doing.
"The who-now?" Henry asked.
"The Akhkharu, Sanguine vampiris, The Vampires." He grinned. "My people."
"O-kay," Henry said, unimpressed. Tesla scowled at him then gave Magnus a more mild expression.
"First of all, I didn't know you knew that name for the ancient vampires." Tesla resumed his tinkering. "What do you wish to know?"
"I've been in contact with an unusual abnormal. I haven't been able to find any record of him but he called the vampires the Akhkharu and said that they'd not only subjugated and enslaved humanity and other abnormals, but their own race. Given that he seemed to know so much about them, I was wondering perhaps you'd come across his people in your studies."
"The vampires beat up other vampires? I thought they had the whole master race thing going on?" Henry asked.
Tesla gave him a flat look. "There were some powers struggles before the clans settled the various parts of the world. Peace was eventually worked out."
Henry crossed his arms and leaned back against the table. "You mean they killed one another until there wasn't anyone else left to kill, and the victors divvied up the planet."
Tesla ignored him. "That was well before most of recorded history. The stories and legends of that time are largely lost because my people were rendered fallow and hunted to extinction."
Henry arched a brow at him. Tesla was Tesla because someone had gotten it on with one of his ancestors. Tesla seemed to sense what he was thinking about and rolled his eyes. He focused on Magnus. "What sort of abnormal were you speaking with and why doesn't he have a record?"
"He seems to have the ability to become invisible, or teleport. Perhaps both. He's appeared to me a few times now. I thought he was a refugee from Mexico City, but Will wasn't able to find his description in the records of refugees, and things have been rather confusing."
"Invisibility and teleporting?" Tesla questioned. "What does he look like? The lovechild of Griffin and dear old Johnnie?"
"Yes, yes." He waved a dismissive hand. "He came from Mexico? So native then? Or was he more European?"
"There was a vampiris presence in the South Americas, though the sources of that bloodline were a separatist group. My direct ancestors were largely more concerned with Europe, Africa and Asia."
"Meaning they hadn't gotten around to the Americas yet," Henry added, unable to resist needling Tesla.
"Henry," the Doc said, placing a hand on his shoulder.
"Right. Working." Henry said, turning back to his armor.
"The Conquistadors were sent by the Church to remove any remaining Vampires as much as they were there to convert and conquer. By that point they were either long dead or had retreated to Bhalasaam. The conquest of the New World was rather hard on the records and keepers."
"So this doesn't appear to be a species of abnormal that was subjugated?"
"It could have been," Nikola said. "They were the Lords of the Earth. Practically all the ancient civilizations were ruled by the Vampire, including those in South America. Those blood rituals practically scream Vampire."
"Could it be an enemy then?" Henry asked over his shoulder. "Any mythical boogeymen in the Vampire mythology?"
Tesla pondered that for a moment. "There was a war with a great enemy who retreated in the face of the combined might of their empires. The opposing host doesn't have a single description. They're usually just referred to as "The Enemy" in the few documents I've been able to pry from the cruel fingers of history."
"Allies?" Helen asked.
Nikola arched an eyebrow. "Allies?"
Nikola frowned, shaking his head. "No records of other empires who were allies. They built empires, Helen. They didn't run to them for shelter."
"Maybe that's why they died," Helen said.
Magnus' phone rang. She picked it up. "Will? I'll be there in a moment." She hung up. "Excuse me. The government inspectors are here." She nodded at their workbenches. "Let me know if you need anything."
Will met her in the foyer with a quick update. "We cleared them through the front gate. Henry's new scanner says they're car is clean. They're a group of four. When they flash their badges we'll grab their info and be able to verify their identities. We already got the one at the gate." He checked his clipboard. "An Agent David Simms."
"Delightful," Nikola said, joining them. Helen gave him a questioning look and he shrugged a shoulder. "I'm done with my work, but Heinrich is still playing catch up. We'll go into the testing phase when he's finished."
"And you're here… why?" Will questioned.
Nikola grinned. "Well this seemed to be the most interesting thing to do." The doorbell rang. "And I believe the party is just about to start."
Helen nodded and squared her shoulders. "Time to meet our guests. Nikola, mind your manners, please." She didn’t have to look at him to hear his disdainful, yet playful, sniff.
"And pray nothing else goes wrong," Will muttered. "How's Kate?"
"More lucid than she was," Helen quipped. Nikola trailed along behind them, silently amused.
Will snorted a laugh. "How does this sort of thing usually go?"
"We usually start with a tour of the less shocking aspects of the house. A conference in my office usually follows. With the UN inspectors we take them to the lower levels to see containment is secure, as by necessity they're already more aware of what we do here."
"We're pretty full here Magnus."
"I assure you that thought has crossed my mind," she concluded, sotto voce as they arrived at the door.
The lead agent was a tall man with dark hair and eyes. He seemed to have a permanent five o'clock shadow. He introduced himself as Agent David Simms and while he gave Helen a firm handshake, he seemed to hold himself distant. The second agent was a tall, dark skinned woman with close-cut hair, Agent Angela Coulton. She had a genuinely warm smile for Helen, but her eyes missed nothing. The second gentleman on the team, Cliff Braxton, was somewhat gangly and probably the youngest, but he seemed pleasant enough and it was likely he was capable. The last agent was another woman with a cheerful smile. She gaped when she saw Will.
"Will? Will Zimmerman?"
"Abby Corigan. We trained together at Quantico."
"Right. Yes. Abby. Hi."
Nikola ducked close to Helen's ear and said, "We really need to teach that boy how to lie properly. At least to women."
Helen couldn't swat him in front of the agents, and he knew it. He grinned at her and introduced himself.
"Like the scientist?" Abby asked, extending a hand.
"Just like," Nikola said with a smile. He didn't shake hands.
"Well, shall we begin the tour?" Helen said, gesturing towards the interior of the house.
"Yes, I believe that would be best," Agent Simms said. "We noticed you seem to have rather heavy shutters on your windows."
"We were scanned coming in," Braxton, the most "geeky" of the bunch said. He had a tablet computer in one hand.
"We've had some trouble. One of our facilities abroad was firebombed," Helen explained. Which wasn't entirely untrue. At the rear of the group, Abby was peppering Will with questions.
"And what is it you do here, Mr. Tesla?" Agent Coulton asked.
"Mostly I drink Helen's wine, and provide color commentary," Nikola said, giving the woman a charming smile. "But occasionally I conduct the odd bit of research."
"Research into what? Simms asked. The other agents chuckled at the perceived joke.
"Well my personal research is into world domination, but Helen rarely lets me indulge in that when I'm in her facility. Usually I assist with creating capture and containment apparatuses. I do the odd bit of computer work as well," Nikola said with a dismissive gesture. "Terribly boring stuff."
The inspection began in the common areas of the house. It was almost like they were conducting business at night, given the shuttered windows. Her Old Friend had done some decorating to that effect and even lit some candles in some of the common areas. There were a few residents up and about. The extremely varied group playing Wii in the entertainment room drew some arched eyebrows. The Satyrs watching hockey a few rooms down resembled a frat-house. Fortunately there was also a knitting circle in one of the day rooms and the chatter in there was far less boisterous.
"You have a knitting circle?" Nikola questioned when he believed the agents were out of hearing range.
"We have a lot of people stuck here for the time being, Nikola," Helen told him. He snorted because he hardly needed to be reminded. "Activities such as these give everyone something to do. Some of those refugees lost everything. This is a way for some of them to feel productive and active. Some of them wear what they've knit, some of them donate it to others either here or at the other Sanctuaries."
"At least it's only a few of them or our new government friends might decide you were running a sweat-shop, or worse. Perhaps your large hairy friend should avoid serving drinks that resemble kool-aid just to be safe."
Helen pressed her lips together in thought. "Perhaps it is a good thing no-one can tend the gardens at the moment."
"It occurred to me," Nikola said, "That young William might not actually have known Agent Corigan."
"It occurred to me as well. He said he does vaguely remember her."
"Well, she's clearly interested," Nikola drawled.
"Be nice," Helen said. "It's not good to embarrass FBI agents."
Helen's phone rang. "Henry's calling." It rang again. "And Declan."
"That's not a good sign."
"Is something the matter?" Agent Simms questioned.
"I hope not. I believe I'll have to take this call," Helen said, ducking down the hall a ways. "Henry?" she answered. "What's happened?"
"Rio's under attack!"
"Helen?" Nikola asked. Will had wandered over with the agents.
"Rio is under attack. I have to go assist them. Will if you'd please continue?"
The agents looked at one another. Simms spoke. "Dr. Magnus if your facility is under attack, maybe we should stick around in case something happens here. We can conduct the rest of the tour when your situation has settled abroad."
Helen blinked at him, stunned by the offer. She tried to see the angle, but he didn't appear to be running a con on her. She looked at Will for his opinion and he shrugged minutely, expression indicating he didn't think it was a false offer. Helen gave the agent a grateful simile. Perhaps something was finally going right.
"I appreciate your flexibility, Agent Simms. That would be greatly appreciated. Will, I'll call you if we need your help."
Helen left quickly, breaking into a run when she wasn't in view of the FBI agents. Nikola kept pace beside her.
"This is now the most interesting thing going on. Also, if you're going to do what I think you are, then it's fortunate I finished my new little toy."
Helen hit the elevator button and dialed John's cell number. "Will you come?"
"You're planning on going?" he arched a brow.
"I have to." The call connected. "John. Rio is under attack. Meet me in the main lab." He agreed and hung up. Nikola raced off before the elevator doors were fully open.
"Don't leave without me!" he called over his shoulder.
"Wouldn't dream of it!" Helen said, hurrying to the main lab.
The monitors showed the Heads of House once more. Henry looked white as a sheet. There was a great deal of shouting going on. Helen stopped in the center of the video pickup.
"What do we know?"
"They're surrounded. I was on a call with Rio when it happened," Declan said. "We were able to maintain the call for a few minutes. She gave me the basics before they cut her internet access off. Their facility has lost external power entirely and they're running on backups."
The head of the Asunción Sanctuary spoke up. "I've been trying to go through the contacts in the area I know, to see what I can do to help. I've been able to contact a few of the staff members who were not home at the time and warn them away."
Helen nodded. "Good. They're assaulting with teams? Do they have support from the local government?"
"We're not sure at the moment," Henry said. He was frowning as he consulted his computer. "The beefed up security network gave them a little warning. The power seems to have been cut to the whole neighborhood so there is some unrest, but it looks like they're trying to do it more like Lima rather than Mexico City again."
"We have to get down there," Helen said. "We have to repel them."
"I can help with that," John said. "If you gather teams, I can take them a few at a time. We can drop in where they won't expect us then retaliate."
"How many can you take at once?" Declan asked.
"A few. There is a limit to the amount of mass I can move. I'd prefer to take many trips with less mass." Distance wasn't an issue.
"I'll assemble a team outside our EM shield. I wouldn't put it past them to try to hit the rest of us while we're distracted."
"How much mass are you limited to, Mr. Druitt?" Pili asked. "I have a few residents who'd be willing to help, but they're rather large."
"The better part of a ton."
John's lips quirked in a smirk. "Sphinxes?" It was a logical conclusion given Cairo's location and the creatures' native habitat.
Pili nodded, wearing a matching smile.
John chuckled. "I believe I could manage one at a time."
Helen knew that taking that much mass was at the outer edge of John's ability. At least it had been when they'd studied their new powers. He'd be exhausted at least. Her Old Friend came in with body armor and weapons. Helen began to strap on the armor. It didn't precisely go with the business suit she was wearing, but it'd have to do. Time was precious.
"You're leaving?" Aaron questioned.
Helen nodded. "Maria and Lucás are both there. I will not let them stand alone."
"We've lost one House Head already," Sydney spoke up. "Is that wise?"
Probably not, Helen thought to herself. "I have to go," she said aloud. "Time is running out and I have extensive field experience. Additionally, there has been a surprise benefit to Mr. Wexford's decision to involve the local government. The Inspectors are here in the house and I doubt the Cabal will be willing to attack overtly. Of us all, I'm actually in the best position to assist Rio."
"Are you certain those inspectors can be trusted?" Declan asked.
"Reasonably." She put on the helmet as well.
"Uh, I ran background checks when they came in," Henry added, "They're all clean as far as I can see."
"Magnus, I have a team just outside of the south courtyard," Declan said. "They're in full riot gear."
"Thank you. We'll come in on their south side, behind their line. We'll try and take out what command post they might have set up, first. Hopefully they haven't breached the perimeter yet."
John took Declan's team in first in pairs as they had the most armor and could provide a beachhead if need be. There were twenty men in all. Helen and Nikola followed. Helen stuck close to the group as shots rang out in the darkness, hollow "bap-bap" sounds. The Cabal had attacked from the nature preserve abutting the Sanctuary, which indicated they didn't have much local support if any. Helen wasn't willing to risk getting anyone else involved in any case. Everything was dark, save for a few emergency lights here and in the complex down the hill, and the moonlight reflecting off the ocean and the tin roofs of the favela housing.
A scout came back, reporting that there was an unmarked van on a service road a little ways off. Helen was coordinating with the team leader from London when the first of Pili's reinforcements arrived.
John staggered a step as the large creature joined them. The sphinx, who had the very traditional name of Ptahhotep, but very non-traditional looking saber teeth, quickly took a step in to give John a shoulder to lean on. Their tough hides could stop lighter shots and stabbing weapons and their superior night vision, huge size, and hunting skills helmed by human-level intelligence all served to make them fearsome creatures.
"Are you well?" he asked. His voice was a low rumble, words carefully pronounced around his large teeth.
John nodded, taking a moment to catch his breath.
"John, perhaps you should stop," Helen suggested.
"No, I can do this."
She touched his shoulder. "Are you sure? I don't want to have you pass out on us. I don't want them to get you." Not you too, was the unspoken thought.
"Then I should leave you with the best possible chance." He grinned at the large predator. "Your spouses are smaller than you, old boy. I should be fine."
"Then bring them and let us hunt," he said, grinning.
Nikola made an approving noise as he scanned the brush. "The longer we're here, the more chance we have of being caught."
John steeled himself and disappeared. He appeared half a minute later with first one female sphinx, Tiaa who'd only just returned to Cairo, then flashed away again. There was an uncomfortable two minutes before he appeared one last time with their spouse, Meri. John sank to the ground, one hand on Meri's shoulder. Helen got to her knees.
"You'd better win Helen," John said, breathing heavily. "Because I cannot do that again."
The mood turned very grim as they realized there would be no quick escape.
"John, I want you to sit out."
"No, I should —" He struggled to return to his feet, but quickly wavered. "Perhaps for a bit," he admitted.
"I will stay," Meri offered. She gave a predatory smile that glinted in the low light. "Then we shall hunt. These humans have much to answer for."
"That sounds like a remarkably good idea," John said, leaning back against a convenient tree.
Helen exchanged a look of surprise with Nikola. For John to admit he needed a moment and for him to take one had to mean he was very tired indeed. "You have radios?"
"Yes," Meri said, showing one strapped to her forearm. An ear piece was clipped to one leonine ear.
"Yes," John said a half second later. He waved them off. "Go. We're wasting time."
Helen nodded and made a gesture to move forward. She carried the non-lethal version of the Anti-Super-Abnormal weapon they had made at the beginning of this war. With luck, if the unfortunate Mr. Wood showed up, Helen would be able to take him down.
The sphinxes slid into the forest, surprisingly silent for their great size. Nikola gave her a grin and followed in their wake like a third dangerous feline. The security from London fanned out and surrounded the van. Helen's job was to watch for their teleporter. The guards were taken down with quick stun-rounds. One moved suddenly and on seeing his fellows fall, sprinted toward the Sanctuary, yelling. Tiaa pounced neatly on him, knocking the air out of him. She tossed him like a doll to Declan's people who quickly bound and gagged him. They were each tied to their own tree as Nikola poured over their surveillance.
"They have a large group rounded up in the central conservator, but they haven't locked everyone down," he said, giving her a quick report. "The have Lucás. He took a taser hit and is with the central group. Maria is unaccounted for. There is a group holed up in one of the underground labs. The creatures who cannot be moved are in their cells. They have inbound to move everyone out. I assume Lima was conducted like this." Nikola paused as someone began to ask increasingly urgent questions in Portuguese. "They're a local cell or local mercenaries and they're on to something being amiss." He hit a button. "They're now blind and deaf. I suggest we move and burn the van behind us."
"What if I used this on their equipment?" Helen asked, hefting the weapon she held.
Nikola gave the weapon a thoughtful look, and then smirked. "Actually, the pulse from that will work nicely." He hopped out of the van, and executed a flourishing bow. Helen fired the powerful pulse into the van and the electronics inside squealed and hissed as they became a smoking ruin. Satisfied, Helen turned toward the Sanctuary.
The rear gate had been torn down and emergency lighting illuminated the rear courtyard of the complex. Rio was a series of stand-alone surface buildings which were connected by subterranean walkways and rooms. Much of the surface was given over to garden space and green areas. The central building had a large atrium which opened to the rear gardens. From here Helen couldn't see who was being held there, but she could see Cabal men patrolling the gardens. They moved not with the urgency of professionals who knew something was very wrong, but of fleeing prey.
A dark shape burst from the bush and took one man with it. The only sound was the rustle of bushes and a faint fleshy impact. The remaining mercenaries stopped in their tracks, confused for a moment as to what was happening, then they ran. A second mercenary was snatched from the path and the remaining one tripped. He got to his feet and fired into the brush. The brush stirred and the man's companion staggered out of the bushed and fell to his knees then keeled over, dead from various bullet wounds.
A dark shape dropped down from the trees behind the mercenary as he beheld what he'd done. The dark shape struck out several times and the man fell boneless to his knees. The thick tail of the predator swished. It froze then darted out of the path again.
Magnus signaled a halt and waited.
The hot breath of the werejaguar made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. She jumped slightly and several guns came up with mechanical clicks as Maria appeared in their midst, seemingly spawned from the hard shadows.
"Magnus," she purred, sounding mildly surprised. She slid from the shadows and assumed tense, crouch. She was naked except for the thick dappled coat which provided near perfect camouflage in this lighting. Unlike other species of HAP, the werejaguars had thick tails for balancing. Her mobile ears twitched in agitation, catching every sound. Her face was pushed out into a very feline snout, but there was an odd ape-like quality that meant she'd never be mistaken for a real jaguar. Her luminous yellow eyes were exactly the same.
"Maria. What is the situation?”
She growled. "There is a large group being held just in there. Another downstairs. Their teleporter has been taking people one at a time." She paused, ears swiveling. "He has just returned."
"Unconscious. His House is broken and he is human. They have not taken him yet. Xilo has welded herself and some of the children in the infirmary." She lifted her nose and sniffed. "Tiaa?"
The huge sphinx slid out of the shadows. It was more disturbing when the sphinxes did it as they outmassed everyone in the group.
"Good hunting, Maria," the sphinx said cheerfully.
Maria snorted a coughing laugh.
"This is your House. How may we help?" Helen asked.
"Their teleporter is a primary threat. Do you have your own pet teleporter?"
Helen refrained from rolling her eyes. "John is currently in the brush with Meri. Moving a few tons has left him drained. I have this however." She indicated the weapon slung over her shoulder. "We developed a lethal version of this weapon when... when this started. This is the non-lethal version."
"We will wait for the teleporter to leave, and then we will strike. Can you take their teleporter by surprise when he returns?"
"From there we move downstairs."
"Understood. Take out the lights?"
"Can you shoot them?" Maria asked the armed men at their backs.
The man tipped an imaginary hat. "Yes Ma'am. McRae sends his regards."
Maria laughed again. "We go now." She slid back into the darkness, Tiaa and her mate following.
"How can something so huge make so little noise?" Nikola observed. He grinned at Helen and his eyes had gone black. "If you don't make this out alive, well, I shall be most disappointed in you."
"The feeling is mutual," Helen murmured as they crept forward.
The lights cracked and popped as they were shot out. The people inside called out to one another and were immediately on guard. The huge leonine shapes of the sphinxes were not at all what they were expecting. The men were bowled over by massive paws, stunners and guns were knocked out of hands and away. The armed team from London moved in, providing cover as Maria sprang around behind the group. She struck out twice, sending the taser one of the mercenaries was holding arcing into the air and knocking him unconscious.
The London crew yelled orders at the mercenaries, telling them to drop their weapons and put their hands behind their heads. They glared at them furiously, but complied. It wasn't precisely a stealthy operation, but it could have been much worse. She kept her eyes open for the teleporter who was back at any moment.
Nikola appeared and began to assist Maria in undoing the bonds holding the captured residents, using their claws with skilled efficiency. The London crew used zip ties and duct tape to restrain and gag the mercenaries. The sphinxes had retreated to the shadows, ready to pounce again if necessary. Helen paced the space, unsure where or when the teleporter would return.
"Behind you!" Nikola called out.
Helen turned, firing the gun blindly. The red eyes of Mr. Wood widened and flashed to what must have been their natural brown before they rolled up in his head and he collapsed to the floor.
We have him, Helen thought to herself. My God, we have him.
"Tie him up," Maria ordered. A few of the residents moved to comply, assisted by the London crew. She pointed at several people. "You all, leave. Now. Return when it is safe. You will only get hurt and taken until we are secure. Go to the safe-houses in the favela and the jungle."
A few fled immediately. Some in the group looked like they wanted to protest, but Maria growled at them, a deep sonorous sound that Helen felt as much as heard. The residents left in short order, fleeing into the protective darkness of the surrounding jungle.
Helen checked Mr. Wood and found him well enough. "How is Lucás?"
"Breathing. Unconscious. Nasty blow to the head, and a split lip," Nikola reported.
"We must go downstairs," Maria said. "The injured will keep until then."
"I can stay and guard," Ptahhotep said from the shadows above.
"I'll come with the team downstairs." Tiaa dropped down to the ground level with a muted thump.
Maria nodded and pointed at the London leader. "Leave him someone and come with me."
The team leader simply turned to his men, selected who would stay and fell into place with Helen and Nikola. Tiaa followed at the rear.
There were bodies in the stairwell and one injured mercenary. Helen tore off a few strips of duct tape; one for the hole in his shoulder and another for his mouth, the latter of which was still cursing furiously. Nikola bound his hands. There was a fire fight abruptly ahead of them.
The shots were loud in the confined space of the hallways below and Helen's ears rang. The mercenaries had them pinned in the stairwell, and they in turn had the mercenaries pinned in a little section of hallway. There were only two of them, but that was all that was needed at this choke point.
Someone was running down the stairs and Helen brought up her pistol. John vaulted onto the landing and froze when he saw the glint of gunmetal. Helen relaxed and waved him down. She gave him a critical once over. He looked pale and drawn and there were deep purple circled under his eyes.
"I see you caught the unfortunate Mr. Wood, finally."
Helen nodded. "I hope once we've repulsed the intruders we can see about getting the EM shield back up before he regains consciousness." Her jaw clenched. She remembered Ashley fighting through the Cabal’s programming. "He must be in there somewhere."
"Unaware of what they have made him do, if there is any mercy in the world," John muttered darkly.
Helen agreed, but that was for later. "We're pinned by a couple of mercenaries down the hall."
"I see," John said, lips twisting into a sneer. "I'll be but a moment."
"Ah!" Nikola said reaching out. "No!"
John paused with a scowl and the silent question of "What?"
Nikola placed a hand on John's shoulder. "Now we may go."
John teleported them both away.
There was a scream down on the far end of the hall, some gunfire, a rather wet snap, and then grave silence.
"Clear!" Nikola called out, appearing from around the corner. He had his kerchief out and was wiping his hands. There were several spots of blood on his coat and shirt. He was muttering as he strode towards the advancing group. "Johnnie's gone on ahead of us to show these gentlemen how they do it in the East End."
"You've been shot," Maria said.
"Yes. How very observant of you," he snapped. He lifted his tie aside and observed the spreading crimson with a look of annoyance. "I liked this shirt." He let it flop back down and fingered the holes in his coat. "I suppose I'll need to get a new coat too."
"If you can complain,” Maria snapped, “then you can hunt. Move."
Nikola let out a dramatic sigh, but he moved anyway.
Helen did not look as they turned the corner. It smelled metallic and she tried to ignore that as well. Their footsteps trod through something wet, but she refused to look down.
There were gunshots and shouts in the dark. The emergency lighting made pools of illumination in the halls, with stark darkness in the space between them. The central lab of the Rio Sanctuary had a large glass aquarium along one wall. The intelligent abnormals had hidden themselves, but the fish continued to swim uninterrupted. On the other side of the lab were several research alcoves with positive pressure behind airlocks. One of the labs was now filled with residents and staff. They were now pressed against the bullet-proof glass, watching the fight in the center of the room between John and four mercenaries. He wasn't teleporting as much as Helen expected, which indicated to her that he was becoming tired once more. Knives glittered in the blue light from the aquarium. The mercenaries' guns had been removed from the equation, and so had a few mercenaries. There were bleeding bodies on the ground.
Tiaa roared and bounded forward, banking off one concrete pillar before landing on a mercenary with a sickening crack. Maria had gone in the exact opposite direction, ricocheting off the aquarium glass and taking down a mercenary from the opposite side. The people in the lab cheered, though their voices were muted by the glass.
"Put your weapons down!" Helen ordered. She pointed her pistol at the nearest merc she could get a clear shot on. The London team had fanned out and was providing cover. The two remaining mercs dropped their knives and tasers.
The people in the lab were freed and Helen had them help bind the mercenaries. Nikola then directed the residents to move their new captives into the lab they themselves had just been confined in.
"I'll take care of things here," Nikola said, shooing her off. They left two more armed men with him and followed John and Maria who were already running deeper into the facility.
"How many do you think there are?" Tiaa asked as she bounded along.
"Hopefully not many more," Helen muttered, replacing her weapon's magazine as they ran.
Another level down they found two mauled guards at the foot of the stairwell. One had the clean cuts, the other had a ragged mess where his neck had once been. The trail of blood left from their vanguard led down the hall and toward the left. Some of the emergency lighting had been shot out, giving the hall a foreboding feeling. The air smelled of ozone and the snapping squeal of a cutting torch grew louder as they turned the corner.
John and Maria flanked a doorway. Another door had been ripped off its hinges and set horizontally, providing a makeshift barricade. Maria's ears flicked but that was the only sign of acknowledgement she gave them. The remains of the team settled behind the barricade.
"How long until they finish cutting the door?" Helen asked. "Your infirmary was set as a hold-out location, correct?"
Maria nodded. "They've been at it for sometime. Not long. Anything you shoot will ricochet off the door."
Helen gestured toward the emergency lighting. "If we shoot out the lights, would we have enough advantage on them?"
"Did I not just say "don't shoot anything," Maria hissed, ears lying flat.
Magnus hefted the anti-super-abnormal weapon. "The pulse from this can take out electronics at short to medium range. Those are LEDs. They should fail."
"You should share your werewolf more often. It isn't fair that you get all the fun toys."
Helen smirked. "Henry helped with it, but it was primarily Nikola. I already loaned him and you were the one who didn't want him to come back."
Maria snorted, teeth flashing in a grin.
"Besides, this weapon uses unique components we cannot reproduce, or I'd have handed out one to every house."
"A couple of you, give me your vests and a helmet," Tiaa said from the back of the group. "I'll rush them."
"As amusing as sending a ton of angry claws and muscle at them would be," John said, "there are still six of them and one of you."
"Cutting torches can be nasty," the London team leader said.
"That's what the vests are for. Can't you teleport behind them and take the cutter?"
John eyed the hallway. It was wide enough that a few people could walk down it abreast. The room they were cutting into was at the top of a T intersection.
"Perhaps to the side."
"Take the lights,” Maria said. “Tiaa rushes from the front, you and I come at them from either side."
"And how do you propose to get over there? Is there another way over there?"
"Drop her off them go behind them."
John eyed her and the hall way skeptically.
"Your concern for my well being is touching." She held out a hand to the nearest of the London team. "Give me your vest. She flicked a clawed finger at two others. "Cover Tiaa with your vests. You, give yours to Druitt," she said to the leader. "After we go, block the hallway with the door."
"Risky," Helen commented. "They're almost through the door, so risky is what we might need."
The armored vests were exchanged and strapped on as best as they could be. Helen crouched to the side of the door and took aim with the weapon. "The far light might be too far. I might have to step out to get it."
"Understood," John said.
"Then go as soon as I start. The distraction should help." She waited for them to nod and then stepped up and fired the weapon at the lights.
The first set fizzled out immediately, the light leaving an afterimage. Helen fired on the second set, and then the third. By now the mercenaries had realized something was going on and were beginning to react. She heard John flash away behind her and appear ahead of her. She had to take a few steps to fire on the last set of lights. Tiaa had wasted no time and charged out and down the hall. Maria hit from one side and John from the other and Helen retreated. The London team hauled her to the side and set up the door as soon as she was clear.
There was yelling, roaring and a few shots on the other side of the door. It lasted for perhaps a few seconds, but felt like an eternity. Helen made herself busy by stowing the pulse weapon and switching back to her pistol. Eventually there was silence. The two men holding the door in place looked at one another, but didn't move.
Eventually, someone on the other side rapped out the rhythm of, "Shave and a haircut."
"Open up. We need help with the door," Tiaa said from the other side.
The group relaxed and removed the door. John was righting the cutting torch and Maria was speaking with the people on the other side. They ended up having to cut the rest of the door off.
Xilo and two other adults, Lucas' partner, Dennis, who'd been the doctor in Mexico City, and Maria's onsite doctor Paul, had herded half a dozen children into the room. There were tears and a lot of fear on many small faces, but they looked hopeful too. Helen would take that.
"Is that all of them?"
"I think —"
Maria was cut off as the building shook with the force of an explosion. John shoved his kevlar vest back at its owner and raced back the way they’d come. There was some shifting as the group reassembled. The adults herded the children down the halls behind the armed and armored team. They left the group in the central lab with the rest of the residents and staff, who were guarding the Cabal mercenaries, and left Tiaa as an additional guard. Nikola was gone, having already run ahead.
The central courtyard was filled with smoke. Tear gas Helen realized belatedly. Her eyes began to water and itch and she put her arm over her nose to try to minimize her exposure. The sounds of gunfire were retreating and there was roaring in the jungle. Suddenly the sprinklers kicked on. The water helped the cloud dissipate. One of the London team staggered out of the garden, supported by Ptahhotep. Both were bleeding. The other London team member was bleeding on the ground as well. Helen ran over and began to stabilize him.
"Where is your vampire?" Maria asked.
"Never mind him, where is their teleporter?" John asked.
Helen looked up quickly scanning the area, but Wood was gone. Helen's heart caught in her throat. They'd had him. They'd won. Maybe not the war, but it had been a victory. She was going to save him or exhaust every possibility in trying. "He's gone. What happened?"
"They came in with an extraction team," Nikola said, staggering out of the gardens. He was covered in mud, blood and debris. Dark-frurred Meri limped in behind on three legs, her lips pulled in a grimace. "They had a helicoper waiting. The oversized kitten took out one of them, but they got away from us. They're gone, we got rid of them, but they took their teleporter."
"Damn," John said.
Helen could only mutely agree.
The structural damage to Rio was tackled by the residents and a very select, very few number of contractors. Repairs began as soon as the bodies had been cleared and the local authorities Maria trusted were informed. They took the mercenaries away, as well as the bodies. Word was sent out to the safe houses and through the locals, telling everyone it was safe to come home. Helen had been worried that those who'd left wouldn't return. Around dawn, the first started to trickle in. A few stood around, looking stunned until someone else handed them a task. Most simply joined in with the repairs, simply glad to have something useful to do to occupy their shocked minds.
Helen helped with the injuries. There were a many lacerations, a few bullet wounds and one broken limb. She, Paul, and Dennis, fixed everyone as best they could. A little after dawn, everyone had been examined and treated. Lucas woke with a headache and though he tried valiantly to plead his case and go help with the repairs, Dennis would not be swayed. Helen had insisted that John sit down for a just a moment, and he'd promptly passed out on the infirmary cot. Helen left him and dragged herself upstairs where Maria was briskly directing repairs from the central atrium. Nikola was assisting with the electronics portion of the repair work, and Declan's people were taking turns running patrols with the staff.
"I'm beginning to see the wisdom in having a few people on hand who can handle these sorts of things," Maria said without looking at Helen. She was wearing a rather sumptuous looking bathrobe, a frown, and not much else. Exhausted, a part of Helen wanted to know if she had a second robe she could wrap herself in and sleep for a week.
"It's ridiculously expensive. Declan only got it into his budget because he and Aaron have so many ex-military friends willing to work on the cheap as a side venture."
She snorted a laugh. "Casualties?"
Helen gave her a rundown of the injuries she'd treated, the status of the infirmary itself, and what supplies she'd need soon. "Paul said he'd have a report to you as soon as the network is back."
"I expect it within the hour. If not, I will be very displeased." She showed her teeth.
"John's asleep and exhausted."
"I spoke with Pili. She's sending transport. Declan's also made arrangements. We'll need to take some care since his people didn't officially enter the country." She took a moment to redirect some of her people toward the back wall of the garden where construction was beginning to take place.
"When John's awake, I'll ask him if he's willing to move them back."
"Have you heard from Old City?"
"Henry called. He said they sustained some electronic attacks, but the presence of the federal agents seems to have kept the Cabal from trying anything more overt. Do you need to move any of your residents? Any of your collection? Or Lucas'?"
Maria shook her head. "You don't have the room. Paraguay doesn't have the room. We aren't so badly off we cannot make repairs. They wanted the people here, not to destroy the building."
Helen watched a group come out of the kitchens and set up for a simple breakfast buffet for the house. Food would help immensely. Maria accepted a couple cups of coffee and passed one to Helen.
"There are some who won't return after something like this."
"It looks like many are, though."
"More than half. We'll see."
The conversation around them was subdued, but the appearance of food was visibly lifting spirits already. "We've weathered this well."
"We were well-prepared and lucky," Maria corrected. She eyed Helen. "We need to be more aggressive."
"You may be right."
Maria arched a brow in surprise. She sipped her coffee. "Things have been said."
"That you've been distracted. Asking about creatures no one else has seen."
"We work with beings most consider myth and legend."
Maria waved a dismissive hand. "I appreciate what you've done for me. What you have done for the network. You will tell me what is going on, though." Maria lifted her chin a little, tone brooking no argument.
It struck Helen a little funny that she was being stared down by a were-cat in a bathrobe, but it was likely the result of too much stress. "What are you looking for?"
"You're avoiding my question."
"We need to be united right now, not finding ways to attack one another..."
Maria cut her off verbally with another dismissive gesture. "No. You talk of unity and trust yet you avoid my question. If either of us is to survive, I want to know what is going on. Your new second is very polite and good at his field, but he doesn't yet know when to push back and is new. Your werewolf looks on you as a mother, your pet teleporter and vampire are kept too busy to ask, and most everyone else in the network still finds you semi-mythical."
"I am calling bullshit, as they say."
Helen scowled. Maria sipped her coffee.
"You really are infuriating."
Maria shrugged a shoulder. "That is not my problem."
Helen tapped her fingers on her coffee mug as she thought. Maria was blunt to the point of rudeness, but she wasn't evil, or even uncaring. She just chose to care in a very selective way, and interpersonal politeness wasn’t a priority. Neither was she one for gossip. She was right about trust and if her distraction had reached Maria's ears, then Helen needed to deal with it or suffer a loss of political capital with the other Heads
"Actually, maybe you can help."
"You're more familiar with abnormals in South America." Helen described the abnormal man and some of the conversations they'd had. She left out the more revolutionary parts where he suggested she go public.
Maria thought for a few moments before answering. "There are things in these jungles. Dangerous things. Powerful things. Some of them very old."
"You've heard of him, then?"
She shook her head. "Even myths and legends have myths and legends. We stay away from such creatures and they do not bother us. Things have been seen in the old places. We stay away."
"In the ruins?"
Helen's phone rang before she could ask more. A moment later, Maria's cell also rang.
"That's certainly not a good sign," Helen said. "Will's calling."
"Declan." Maria answered her phone and Helen her own.
"I want to hear good news, but somehow I don't think that's why we both got calls just now."
"What is it, Will."
"Aaron's called from New York. Wexford's gone rogue."
For a moment, Helen was utterly speechless. Then, "What?"
"New York is on lockdown and only a few staff had any sort of access in or out. He was trying to keep everyone inside, but Aaron got some people out. Henry and the other IT types are trying to lock New York out of the system."
"Has… has he gone to the Cabal?" Helen felt sick just saying the words.
"As far as we know, no. We don't know if that's a not yet, or if he's just striking out on his own. He blasted everyone with an email explaining his reasons. He thinks he's doing the right thing."
She sighed wearily and rubbed her forehead. Helen could feel a headache coming on. "They always do."